Available on DVD and Blu-ray from Mon 14 Jul
Jonathan Glazer / UK/USA / 2014 / 108 mins
Depictions of Scotland onscreen often oscillate between splatters of filth (Ratcatcher and, well, Filth) or whimsy (Gregory’s Girl, the, er, final scene of Battleship). It’s rare to see a film that marries both approaches, but that’s exactly what Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin does, and does well. Its slight narrative provides excuse for a series of vignettes, some of them shocking, many oddly moving. It’s a very Scottish brew, and the closest we’ve come to seeing ourselves, as we are, since Trainspotting. Which isn’t bad for a sci-fi film about a seductive, man-abducting alien.
Glazer makes two particularly smart choices. The first is casting Scarlett Johansson as the extraterrestrial. Without any real quirks, or even much of a backstory, the character is overlaid by Johansson’s star presence. Big name actors generally do that, but here the effect helps sell the notion that this arrival from outer space looks human, yet doesn’t quite fit in. The second is filming in Glasgow. Unlike traditional invasion sites like New York or London, Glasgow’s distinct culture can baffle people only fifty miles distant. Humour is derived from the cocky patter of the potential abductees – many of them not professional actors – but more importantly, the documentary style of the film allows the natural strangeness of Glasgow to be conveyed in full, unscripted and unvarnished.
This is why Under The Skin is as accurate a depiction of Scotland as we’ve seen for a long time. Faraway from the tribal warfare of the Referendum debate, or Rangers v Celtic, or Orange marchers versus everyone else, it is a film that homes in on the subjective experience of our country, showing us just how weird it can seem even at its most mundane. The sci-fi is there, but it’s just a hook. This is social realism par excellence.