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Under the Skin

By R&H reader Mr Swellmons

Posted April 03, 2014
film review

Mr Swellmons seeks light relief from Scarlett Johansson and he is not disappointed.

Convalescing isn't easy.

God knows it's hard to do.

Lying around in bed after surgery, feeling like I'd recently been shanked outside Betfred, I ruminated miserably over the fate of Crimea, missing Malaysian airliners and the human race in general.

Finally enough was enough.

I needed something light-hearted, something to distract me from the pain.

I decided to haul myself out of bed and hobbled down the road to the cinema.

Ah, cinema!

Snug little cushion of dark diversion!

Sweet (or salted) womb of amusement!

I scanned the bill for something appropriate and lit upon Under the Skin – a sci-fi starring Scarlett Johansson.

"Oh ho!" I thought.

"Scarlett Johansson, the lilo-lipped sex-kitten, running around in futuristic swimwear, firing lasers at goggle-eyed, tentacled, amphibamen."

"Tentacles covered in eyes."

"Yes, that's what this codeine-fuelled trip requires."

One, please.

I settled into my soft seat, one of maybe eight or nine other punters who thought that 10:00 on a Friday morning was a reasonable time to catch a movie, and prepared myself for immersion.

But things weren't quite as expected.

scarlett johansson
Pearl necklace: Scarlett Johansson (right). (Check bottom for credit)

To begin with, Under the Skin is directed by Jonathan Glazer.

His début movie Sexy Beast was a darkly comic gangster drama in which Ray Winstone's depiction of a retired criminal living the good life in Spain is eclipsed by Ben Kingsley's evil, edgy psychopath Don Logan persuading him to do 'one last job'.

Glazer is also the auteur behind a bunch of defining music videos and TV commercials – Blur's Universal, Jamiroquai's Virtual Insanity (yep, the one with the sliding floor), Radiohead's Karma Police and that Guinness advert with the horses in the surf.

Somehow, I don't think my desire for mindless triviality, seasoned with a bit of sex, is going to be met.

Under the Skin opens with an abstract suggestion of an alien's arrival on Earth and it's process of assimilation into human culture, with deference in style to Kubrick's 2001.

Within the first few minutes we see Johansson – the alien – fully nude, but as she is in the process of stealing the clothing from a paralysed victim in chilling, mechanical fashion, all sense of titillation is demolished.

She then goes on the prowl for male victims, driving around the streets of Glasgow in a white van, stopping blokes at random and asking them for directions before inviting them into her cab.

These scenes were shot by Glazer and his crew using cameras hidden in the dashboard while Johansson, half disguised in a black wig, was free to pull up and chat to random strangers on the street to get authentic reactions.

When the alien does persuade the men to come with her, with the promise of a shag, they are led to her lair, where they are undressed and submerged in a pool of black goo to await the time at which their insides are removed.


After an indeterminate amount of time serially killing Glaswegians, the alien develops a change of heart.

She becomes interested in learning more about what it means to be human and to this end changes course and follows a path led by her curiosity rather than her desire to procure human meat.

Glitzy: Govan. (Check bottom for credit)

It is in exploring this aspect of the story – what an alien feels like trying to be human – that Glazer reveals his true genius in casting Johansson for the part.

And Johansson herself has to be commended for taking on such a challenging and unorthodox role.

Seeing this Hollywood beauty, this red-carpet siren and face of Dolce & Gabbana, pottering around the rainy streets of Govan in a dirty, oversized bomber jacket or picking idly through the make-up rack in Superdrug is as an incongruous a sight as we are likely to behold on the big screen.

The feeling that we are witnessing something that is surely out of place, that surely cannot belong here, really enhances our experience of empathy with an alien being.

More than that, it also provides an arch commentary on the cult of celebrity and the objectification of women in Hollywood.

Scarlett Johansson, the airbrushed sex fantasy of millions, performs nude in a number of scenes in which she is revealed in all her chubby, cellulite-patched and therefore normal and human beauty.

A total revelation of a movie.

Unfortunately, even though I found it a consummate work of art, the slow and sinister pace, the themes of human butchery and the discordant white-noise soundtrack didn't do much for my spirits.

Or maybe it was just the footage of Glasgow.

Either way, I left the cinema in worse shape than how I'd entered.

And my solution to this further sinking of mood?

I went home and purchased the novel by Michel Faber upon which the film is based, crawled back into bed and read it cover to cover.

The damn thing really has got under my skin.

And to give you taster of what Mr Swellmons is talking about, here's the film's official trailer, embedded here on the Rake & Herald from FilmTrailerZone's YouTube channel.

See also Die happy with Daniel Traips, posted 12/3/14.

Picture credits

Middle: Scarlett Johansson in 2013 by GabboT.

Bottom: A derelict former industrial building in Govan by David McMumm.

For licensing information click the above links.

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