I always find it a point of total fascination that watching a film or listening to an album can be experiences where your enjoyment of what you’re consuming is not a guaranteed constant. Returning to stuff you used to like can sometimes provoke warm nostalgia, or otherwise make you coldly question what you even liked about it in the first place. Returning to stuff that didn’t click with you on a first watch or listen is also quite curious, especially if a piece of art connects with you in a fresh, meaningful way it’s hard to reconcile your newfound appreciation with a time when, for whatever reason, you once found yourself labouring to pay attention.
Under the Skin is a film that, upon re-watching it recently, I feel the need to reflect upon in the context of a changed opinion. Released in 2014 when I was the tender age of 16 years old, watching it now for a second time some 7 years later yields some obvious and not so obvious insights into the film itself as well as how my own tastes have changed in that time.
The film stars Scarlett Johansson as an alien dropped on the outskirts of Glasgow. Adopting a human form, she drives a nondescript white van around the city observing its inhabitants, walking among them and occasionally picking up the odd unsuspecting male and taking him back to her lair. It makes for quite a jarring image seeing a Hollywood superstar like Johansson wade through a crowded Buchanan Galleries, or chatting with broad-accented locals in interactions filmed by hidden cameras. All of this contributes to the aim of director Jonathan Glazer in making the story feel hyper-real to viewers.
I think this film is especially uncomfortable if you are a Scottish viewer, because even if you are familiar with Glasgow the film somehow manages to convey such an otherworldly, detached perspective of the city that transforms the ordinary to the peculiar. Scenes involving a local nightclub that Johansson visits or her patrols of neighbourhoods in search of fresh victims were totally unscripted, blending fact and fiction in a way that acutely captures for the viewer the sort of alienation a predatory visitor from another planet might feel if they were to visit Scotland in the 21st century.
On that first watch on its release a few years back I found myself drawn to the main event(s) of the movie: namely the hunting of local Glaswegians at the hands of an extra-terrestrial femme fatale. I think that’s why I found the in between bits, and the ending itself, to just be boring filler that didn’t really have much to say for itself. But on second watch I’ve found this film really flourishes in the minor, less violent details, looking at our day-to-day existence and questioning the received wisdom that guides and shapes our behaviour and morals. Coming from another planet it might not be obvious that you would tap your toe to the beat of a song or feel any sympathy for a crying baby, and so much of this film’s odd attraction flows from its ability to effectively separate you from these otherwise instinctive human responses.
If you can park your expectations of the story being spelled out in a clear way then this film can truly be provided with the space it needs to surprise, horrify and bewilder you in the ways it does best. Everything from the score to the gorgeous depictions of Scotland’s vast landscapes is paired together to deliver a cinematic experience that – true to its name – gets under the skin. The film channels the viewer through the gaze of a total outsider, and achieves the impossible in turning the famously friendly city of Glasgow into a strange and unwelcoming place.
Words by Charlie Forbes