Under the Skin (2013)

Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Paul Brannigan, Krystof Hádek, Scott Dymond, Michael Moreland, Jeremy McWilliams

Directed by: Jonathan Glazer

Rating: 1 2 3 4 5

Scarlett Johansson as the alien in Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's arthouse horror sci-fi Under the Skin has all the hallmarks of a film that would usually send me to sleep. It's languorously slow, with very little dialogue; it's utterly weird, nothing is explained and very little actually happens. And yet I found myself completely transfixed by this baffling tale of the Woman who Fell to Earth.

Scarlett Johansson plays an alien who, in a phallic opening sequence of darkness penetrating light (in the form of a giant Polo mint – told you it was weird) finds herself on Planet Earth, just outside of Glasgow, population soon-to-be-minus-a-few.

The chances of anything as gorgeous as Johansson coming to Glasgow are a million to one, they said. And still she came. And while she may be attired in human skin, stalking the shopping centres, kerb crawling Sauchiehall Street and floundering in a packed, sweaty nightclub in a warehouse, the luminously beautiful Hollywood star could not be more alien to the lumpen, pallid, over-made-up, scraggy, hairy normal folk to surround her. (I say this without prejudice to Glaswegians – that could easily have been me outside the Garage, fur coat, wrinkles, false eyelashes and all, as Johansson sails by.)

Scarlett Johansson lures another victim to their death in Under the Skin

And yet this peely-wally population is the key to our heroine's survival, for every day, she must – feed? absorb? – it's never made entirely clear how she gains sustenance from the bodies she abducts. Glacially cool, she rolls from the chaotic streets of the city centre to the grimy, pebble-dashed suburbs in search of prey, chatting politely to her gallus victims in a posh English accent, like the Queen confronted with a dancing dog at the Royal Variety Performance, while they sit in her van in their shiny shirts or Celtic attire, alternately unable to believe their luck or waiting for Jeremy Beadle to leap out.

Calm, emotionless, she feels neither cold nor fear nor compassion... at first. But an unlikely encounter changes things, and suddenly she's gone from a self-possessed David Bowie-style alien to ET lying in the forest, pale, vulnerable, defenceless.

And yet there's no joy in this turning of the tables: oddly, I found myself rooting for Johnasson's sociopathic seductress throughout: like a beautiful, sleek panther surrounded by monkeys, you can hardly blame her for being a predator. In fact, there's definitely something of the nature documentary about Under the Skin: its measured pace, non-judgmental, observational attitude and forensic fascination with detail.

Beautiful scenery in Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Strange, elegiac and absorbing, it's reminiscent of other movies – an obvious comparison being The Man Who Fell to Earth, but also Altered States and later, more off the wall Hammer films like Straight on till Morning – yet it is also like nothing I've seen before. Nothing much happens, yet it's as taut and compelling as a thriller; nothing is explained (there are no 'nanu nanu' moments when Johansson reports back to base) and yet the story arc is utterly satisfying. Shot through with black humour (if you're familiar with Glasgow and Glaswegians anyway) and with a haunting soundtrack that's like Nine Inch Nails reworking a Hammer score, punctuated by moments of silence in which you could have heard a pin drop in the breath-held cinema, Under the Skin is really quite a masterpiece, an unexpectedly beautiful, moving tale that gets exactly where it says it will. Do not miss.

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