The opening begins with a black screen accompanied a barely audible buzzing and tinging. A tiny pinprick of light in the center of the blackness slowly transforms into a human eye while the static-filled background slowly becomes clearer and clearer, a voice fine-tuning its' language skills, the way a language specialist might, sounding out the initial consonant sounds, buh buh buh, fuh, fuh, fuh, finally forming words, fill versus feel. The nuance of human language.
There are very few words to help in the sparse, tension-creating script by director Jonathan Glazer (Birth, Sexy Beast) and Walter Campbell, an ad man who collaborated with Glazer on a commercial for Guinness in the late 90's. All we can do is watch and feel as the events unfold. The first half of the movie is devoted to the pursuit of these men, Johansson driving around Scotland, beckoning them to her van, checking to see if they lead solitary lives or have people waiting for them. She chats, in a charming British accent, to these solitary Scotsmen — who are almost intelligible to my North American ear – then takes them to her place, an abandoned home; dark, dirty, wallpaper peeling. The kind of place that would have you running for your life in real life. But this is fiction, a sci-fi horror hybrid, and the men have hard-ons for the alien — literal erections, it is after all the sexy Scarlett Johansson we're talking about — so they follow her into the ruins and up the stairs where the room becomes a cavernous dark space with a deeply glossy black floor. She walks across the room backwards, stripping as she goes and they follow, the glassy black floor now something like molasses, some primordial tar, silently swallowing them whole. That silence is important. There are no screams, the men just disappear. There's no blood in the movie, or very little. The bit of blood there is, is a texture, a sample of humanity for the alien to ponder.
The pivotal moment is when the alien (Isserley in the book, she's not identified by name in the movie) picks up a man who has a neurologic disorder that results in a facial deformity, creating something of an Elephant Man effect. He is alone, and its clear, because of his disfigurement, no one is waiting for him. No one will ever wait for him. He awakens what appears to be human emotion in Johansson's alien, changing her course. That's where things get messy, where she takes her unapproved detour.*
I won't go into the rest of the details; Under the Skin is on DVD, BluRay, on Amazon and google-play and if you haven't seen it, I highly recommend it IF you're in the mood for something dark, dangerous, totally absorbing and a little mind-bending. I'll be thinking about it for quite some time, trying to figure out just what it's saying about life. That we're all the same 'Under the Skin' seems too simplistic and yet it's a powerfully potent message. The more she interacts with men, with human beings, the less able she is to carry out her mission, the less able she is to be the scientific, detached voyeur. Instead, she becomes part of her own experiment.
Glazer's use of real men, reportedly photographed by a secret camera, as Scarlett Johansson, famous movie star disguised in a black wig, called them over to her van, has been called a sort of performance art; what begins as the movie star dangling her goodies in the face of the public changes. Rather than humans disappearing into that black void, their lifeblood sucked dry, their lives stolen, finally it's the alien creature who becomes the victim. A metaphor for how audiences interact with Hollywood, the price of fame?
I couldn't take my eyes from the screen and there are so many scenes I can't get out of my mind; one where the North Sea crashes upon a rocky beach, the sea spray, the powerful waves creating another vision of how life can swallow us whole, leave us powerless on its shores. It's impossible to watch and not feel the chill of the winter air, the freezing cold water, the rock-hard reality of the shoreline.
* It got a little messy for me too. From what I understand Glazer's film is markedly different from Faber's sic-fi thriller — although having seen the movie, I feel compelled to now read the book! — and I was a bit bothered by the use of the deformed man. Adam Pearson is the actor's name but his facial deformity is real, caused by neurofibromatosis and I wondered if using him wasn't dissimilar to the experience the real Elephant Man went through. The freak factor, held up as an oddity for our fascination, a creep show exhibit. He is what awakens the alien's questioning of what she's doing on planet earth though, and sets her on a new road. Is that justification enough? I wondered. I found this article in the Guardian; I highly recommend you give it a read, the upshot being that for Pearson, the film was a chance to show the world that disfigurement can be something other than Hollywood's short form for evil. It gives the audience a chance to face the unknown, that which we fear. If you watch the film you'll likely find, as I did, that the longer Pearson is on screen, the less frightening he looks. That initial shock wears off, and you see a human being, the real man Under the Skin.