I would go as far as to say that Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin (2013) remains perhaps the best British film since the turn of the decade. Moreover, I have also come to consider it as one of the most accomplished science fiction films in this same time-span.

An oblique, densely layered and supremely ambiguous modern art-house masterpiece, Under the Skin is a film to reaffirm your waning faith in the genre's artistic capabilities, in a world increasingly focused on its box office draw. Only its director's third film in sixteen years after the stylistically impeccable Sexy Beast (2000) and the troubling Birth (2006), this Glasgow set tale of an extra-terrestrial black widow learning how to be human is the perfect antithesis to its big budget Hollywood counterparts.

Since the beginning of his career, one that steadily transitioned from advertising and music videos into celebrated narrative filmmaking, Glazer has possessed a keen eye for distinctive, complex, and often iconic imagery. The Guinness ad with the horses emerging from the waves to the leftfield soundtrack? - Jonathan Glazer. The exploding paint from the Glasgow tower blocks for Sony? - Jonathan Glazer. The shifting floor antics of Jamiroquai's 'Virtual Insanity' video? Once again, Jonathan Glazer.

Fig i: Under the Skin (2013) - Dir: Jonathan Glazer


One can look back at the trajectory of British television advertising, and mainstream music video production alike, and see Glazer's distinct stamp on some of the more memorable emerging content - his work a decade previous still informing the current generation of marketing prodigies. So it is obvious then that this is a director adept not just in one single approach to the medium, but in the concept of moving visual art as a whole.

Able to convey incredibly simple ideas such as "buy this" or "listen to that", and yet equally comfortable exploring much deeper and more universal messages, Glazer's understanding and use of the semiotics of film has become increasingly articulate, and similarly impenetrable.

Under the Skin is a work that to fully explain and delve into would require ten of these articles; such is its considered and lucid handling of a vastly intricate subject matter. However, one element of the film that has consistently struck me is the visual treatment of 'the body'. The suitably named Under the Skin is a work preoccupied with the human form as a means of identity construction, and here I would like to explore the use of surreal, abstract imagery in the film, and how Glazer explores the body of both killer and victim alike, often interchanging the two by punctuating the film with carefully constructed visual associations.

Fig ii: The artificial shape created by geometrical special effects


Fig iii: the eye, after the edit.


Within the opening sequence of the film, wherein processions of shapes manifest themselves on the screen, is the overarching message that appears throughout its running time - the substitution of the artificial with the organic. We observe as what appears to be the silhouette of a spaceship approaches a spherical planet, before the shape that has been created through a perspective shift turns into an eye.

Bear in mind that this is one of the first images we see, before any characters or settings, and before a single line of dialogue has been uttered, but instantly we are aware that the film concerns an entity that walks the line between the binary opposites of human and non-human. The way that Glazer achieves this is by utilising the eye, the window to the soul, as something that defines the idea of a human, the part of our body that allows us to observe and determine our own identity, and a motif that will become hugely important later on.

Soon after, we watch as a network of rivers flow through the countryside before cutting to a mysterious biker swiftly riding along a Scottish highland road, his headlight the lone source of movement in the frame. If we are already thinking in terms of the human anatomy, then both these images (figs iv and v) could be said to resemble veins or arteries, the movement along them blood.

Fig iv: the river - symbolic of the veins in her new body


Fig v: The highland road, again with an anatomical visual association


Numerous times thereafter, Scarlett Johansson's unnamed alien is seen to interact with both her own and the bodies of others in differing ways. Firstly, we see her naked, undressing a dead woman in a brightly lit white space, and taking the clothes for herself. With this act she takes the woman's identity and place in society, before leaving the space and entering the human world.

So the suggestion is that now, both under her skin and over it, there are elements that make her human - something Glazer has established within the first sequence of the film. From here she begins to stalk her male victims, seducing them and taking them to her dilapidated house before leading them into a black void where they wander unknowingly into the abyss.

The alien essentially feeds on the life force of its victims, who are literally drained of their contents and left as floating skin. Again, anatomical connotation is suggested with the trough of red liquid we see immediately after she takes a victim (vi and vii).

Fig vi: The empty skin of her victim floats through the void


Fig vii: The trough of red, again reinforcing the arterial connection


As she consumes more and more people, the alien begins to become human herself, experiencing compassion, empathy, fear, arousal and pain for the very first times. One such instance is when she attempts to harvest a heavily disfigured man. She takes him to the void, removes his clothes but takes pity on him, gazing into the eyes of her own reflection and experiencing an individual realisation.

Through the disfigurement of the man's body, and the identification of her own through its eyes, the alien becomes human, her skin, veins, blood and eyes being signifiers of the status. Previously Glazer had shown us a sequence in which he unknowingly films members of the public passing each other by in a busy high street. After a while he begins to superimpose the frames over each other, building to a point where the screen becomes an orange void and we are able to make out Johansson's face against the distorted pattern.

Fig viii: The pattern of different human faces and bodies that Glazer creates.


Fig ix: The moment Johansson's face appears in the pattern, confirming her newfound human nature by visually connecting her with every other human in these dense layers of superimposition.


With this he establishes the idea that with a human body, you are to experience a vast range of feelings, instincts, and worries that are specific to the human condition. With the alien's occupation of a female form, she becomes human - the emotions inherent with the design smothering her own non-human motivations.

Glazer is a director able to convey this incredibly complex idea with surreal, unconventional imagery. Visual ideas that we would not normally associate with this highly conceptual philosophy seem familiar and suitable under his direction, and even with the heavily ambiguous nature of Under The Skin we are able to take away a clear, universally relevant message.

I consider Under the Skin so highly for this reason, and have recently thought that Glazer might not only be the finest British fictional director of his generation, but also its greatest advertiser. Because, let's face it, are there any other directors able to sell a dense, complex idea as easily they do a pint of Guinness?