Stylish sci-fi oozes coldness

CHILLY WATCH: Johansson pulls off a sensitive performance as an alien in the skin of a sexy woman.


    Jun 12, 2014

    Stylish sci-fi oozes coldness


    108 minutes/Opens today



    The story:

    A nameless alien assumes the form of an attractive woman (Scarlett Johansson). She drives around Glasgow and the Scottish Highlands in a van, inviting men into the vehicle. Fellow aliens riding motorcycles watch over her as she goes about her mission.

    A RTY horror meets vague conceptual sci-fi in this work by the director of the funny, scabrous tale of London gangsters in their holiday homes, Sexy Beast (2000).

    British director Jonathan Glazer, stymied by a range of artistic and financial obstacles, took a decade to complete Under The Skin, based on the 2000 novel of the same name by Michel Faber that was shortlisted for the Whitbread Award.

    The difficult gestation has not done Skin any major harm.

    It has emerged as an enjoyable, if chilly, watch. That coldness comes through both in the literal sense - our protagonist moves about a wintry, grey Scotland that reminds us why the British moan about the weather - and in the metaphorical.

    Our alien (Johansson, named Isserley in the book but remains without a moniker here) comes to terms with the human concepts of attachment and empathy.

    Nothing in this work's themes breaks new ground.

    There is more than a trace of David Cronenberg flesh-horror in this movie, while the conceit of seeing human behaviour through an extraterrestrial's point of view has been tried more than once.

    What gives Skin its heft is its stylishness.

    Glazer, noted for his music video and advertising work, knows how to make an arresting image.

    The sci-fi set design (to say too much would spoil the fun) is a stunning piece of minimalist futurism where space and time dissolve.

    When the alien pod receives its "deliveries", the moment is as solemnly ritualistic as a Japanese tea ceremony and just as mesmerising.

    Glasgow and its environs feel and look drab, but are at the same time atmospherically creepy, a place where men can disappear and no one would care or even notice.

    In fact, there is hardly any exposition, not to mention dialogue, but the editing snaps the story into focus.

    You will be glad for the sparseness of the dialogue: The Glaswegian working-class dialect sounds as close to English to this reviewer's ears as Hungarian.

    Johansson is front and centre in every scene and she pulls off a sensitive, sympathetic performance as a being forced by her planet's overseers to slip into the skin of a sexy woman, in every sense of the phrase.

    For the film's central metaphor to work (no prizes for guessing what it is), Johansson needs to break everyone's hearts at the film's denouement, and in this task, she succeeds.