Jonathan Glazer has directed two brilliant films to date, Sexy Beast and Birth, so it’s a shame to report that his long gestated adaptation of Under The Skin is his first major misfire as a director. Although Glazer claims its not a straight adaptation of Michel Faber’s book, giving it the same title would seem like the first mistake, since only the first few chapters of the book are dramatized.
Glazer was clearly enamored of the book’s opening conceit, but by removing the storyline, Under The Skin is more like a feature length pop video, dancing around an idea without every delivering on the premise. An alien takes a human form (Scarlett Johansson) and proceeds to flirt with and lure Scottish men back to a pool where their bodies seem to collapse. This action is repeated for the length of the film, completely missing out any of the complex allegory that Faber presented.
Glazer does conjure up some interesting and disturbing images; a baby abandoned on a beach as the tide comes in, helpless and unable to move. There’s a final flesh-tearing reveal of what’s under the skin of the alien. But with no narrative drive or plot to speak of, these images are left meaningless and disconnected. Johansson gives a good impression of an emotionally blank alien, perhaps fortunately, since she also gives a good impression of an actress who has been given little or no direction. Whatever intrigue the idea of an alien harvesting men might have is quickly defused by the protracted, repetitive narrative which soon becomes a bore.
Under The Skin does give a strong impression of modern Scotland as hell on earth, peopled with rapists, drug-addicts and poverty. This sits uneasily with Glazer’s style, reduced to grimy exteriors and a space-ship interior defined only in terms of inky blackness. Faber’s difficult novel has been reduced to sci-fi claptrap, an arty, pretentious twaddle that’s destined to sink like a stone.