Sundays are just the worst. When you’re a kid it is because the specter of school is looming above your head the entire day (this is still the case for some of us). In this particular situation, however, Sunday is a bummer because it marks the conclusion of Scarlett Johansson Weekend 2014. After Captain America: The Winter Soldier and the trailer for Lucy, my favorite film festival ends in style with co-writer/director Jonathan Glazer’s new movie Under the Skin.
Johansson stars as an unnamed alien, harvesting men throughout rural Scotland under the watchful eye of another extra-terrestrial being. The movie has garnered comparisons to the work of Stanley Kubrick, which is not completely unfounded; the opening sequence is very reminiscent of the beginning of 2001, but it works as a riff or an homage, rather than as plagiarism.
Glazer and his cinematographer, Daniel Landin, produce stunning visuals from minute one, with the aid of their effects and design teams. Everything from the otherworldly sets to the shots of the countryside look amazing. Glazer sets the film on Scotland, which does not seem totally outside of the norm for a British director, but the combination of incredible nature shots and heavily accented actors (and non-actors) puts the viewer in the shoes of Johansson’s character. She is the ultimate outsider on the planet, and Glazer does a great job helping us to identify with that.
He would not have been nearly as successful as he was had Johansson not performed as well as she does here. The last several months have really shown how great Johansson can be when given the right material. Her was my favorite movie of 2013 due in no small part to Joahnsson, and Under the Skin backs that turn up, despite the actress utilizing an entirely different skill-set. Where Her necessitated the creation of a character from only vocals, Johansson does the same here with very minimal dialogue. Whenever she speaks it is solely for the benefit of her human prey, as she and her alien associate clearly communicate in some other way, possibly via Mica Levi’s score, which is surprisingly melodious, considering it seems to be mostly composed of mechanical noises and bee-like buzzing.
That score becomes less and less chaotic as the film progresses and our main character begins to explore her burgeoning humanity. The amount of emotion Johansson and the rest of Glazer’s cast are able to evoke is astonishing in this age of overly-written films. Unfortunately none of the characters are named, so it is pretty difficult to tell who played who, but all of the performances are so honest and real that it almost shouldn’t matter.
Much like Denis Villeneuve’s recent film Enemy, Under the Skin will not hold your hand or give you any grand answers in the form of exposition. But it is also not the kind of puzzle box that Enemy aspires to be. Under the Skin is intended to be felt. It is a mostly-silent film about identity crisis, and everyone involved takes such care to make it effective that it cannot really fail. This is Jonathan Glazer’s first feature since 2004, and I desperately hope he does not wait 10 more years to stun us again.