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Under the Skin is a chance to see a hypnotic and lonely Glasgow through alien eyes

Under The Skin combines trippy effects, ordinary non-actors and an out of place superstar to make rare and powerful cinema, says Sally Campbell

Issue No. 2395

Scarlette Johansson in Under The Skin

Scarlett Johansson in Under The Skin

This is a rare film which genuinely makes you look at the familiar world anew. 

Why do people do the things they do? Why do they queue up at cash machines, chip shops and bus stops, or crowd out nightclubs, football grounds and shopping centres? And how are there so many lonely people among these throngs?

These are the questions that arise through the eyes of an alien in Under the Skin. It is a remarkable achievement on the part of director Jonathan Glazer and his cast and crew. 

Glazer combines hidden camera footage and non-actors with trippy, hypnotic sci-fi effects and professional actors.

The genius decision to cast Scarlett Johansson, one of the most recognisable actors on the planet, as an otherworldly predator in Glasgow, is part of the success of this film. 

It is a jolt to see this Hollywood star dressed in cheap high street clothes and messy dark hair, wandering through Primark in Glasgow’s city centre.

It’s not that it’s strange to see “ordinary people” on the big screen—there is a long tradition of naturalism and gritty realism in British film. Rather it is seeing “ordinariness” through Johansson’s eyes that estranges the viewer from what they see.

And Johansson’s character is literally an alien—with a mysterious mission to lure men into her transit van and back to her mothership, concealed in a scruffy, derelict house. 

She drives around the city streets, looking out for the signs of loners, men who will respond to her attention and who won’t be missed too soon. Like a femme fatale version of serial killer Ted Bundy, in red lipstick and fake fur, she asks strangers for help and seals their fate. 

But her seemingly relentless mission soon changes, as she spends more time observing the humans around her. All their actions are strange and inexplicable. One excellent scene involving Tommy Cooper says it all. 

Yet she is clearly fascinated, attempting to feel what they feel and act as they act. 

Johansson’s mostly silent turn beautifully conveys the sense of fear, confusion, desire and vulnerability of being an alien among people. 

As I left the cinema I found myself looking at the people and the streets of London as she might—both beautiful and strange, threatening and hard to decipher. It is unusual for a film to have such an immediate effect.

Under the Skin is out now

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Tue 18 Mar 2014, 18:28 GMT
Issue No. 2395
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