Director Jonathan Glazer's new movie Under the Skin (2013) was released in UK cinemas last week and has done well despite the modest amount of screens it opened on. I saw the movie last Friday and while I think it deserves many of the critical accolades it has attracted, I felt it was on the periphery of a visually stunning and poetic piece of modern cinema.

The movie features Scarlet Johannson as an alien visitor who moves around Scotland preying on lustful men as she attracts them to a lair where a black watery like death awaits them. The men fall into a black abyss and their bodies change form as they are submerged. Johansson's character is assisted by other aliens whose presence in the movie is both ambiguous and unnerving.

As the alien walks and drives around the streets of Scotland, what is beautifully conveyed is the simple minutia of everyday life. This alien and cinematographer Daniel Landin's camera are witness to the simple day to day business of human beings (the film makers shot some of the movie with unknowing extras and participants on the streets). This kind of film making is beautifully realised as a nameless visitor walks through a shopping mall and we see the crowds walking out of a football match at the local stadium. All of these moments are beautifully shot and offer a poetically sincere view of both modern British life while also portraying the isolationist nature of the main character as she searches for her quarry. I have not seen Scotland or Great Britain portrayed through such a beautiful lens since last year's Byzantium (2013). The other visually stunning scenes here are the ones that point directly toward the science fiction strand of the story - the scenes that dramatize these events are wonderfully realised while also not betraying the abstract nature of the story. As the men fall to their doom, the space in which they perish is wonderfully portrayed. The story also hints towards a wider contextual narrative, which is perhaps not contained in the story we see on screen.

The story also portrays interesting and very human ideas concerning gender roles. The men that fall victim to the alien are not attractive; when these men are juxtaposed with the beauty of Scarlet Johannson the imagery seems to suggest that while men lust toward the ultimate expression of beauty and femininity they themselves can struggle to see beneath the skin of the person they desire, and in this case it leads to their ultimate death. This thematic concern is very modern and is played here as a slender but rich undercurrent and perhaps a universally human theme too. Once the alien meets a man with neurofibromatosis, the humanity of the skin she wears perhaps affects her so much she begins to make choices that are not defined by the physical form which lurks underneath her skin. Glazer himself has claimed that to view the main character as even slightly human is irrelevant because by definition she is inhuman. It is perhaps a flaw of the film then to suggest that the character seeks out humane pleasure in the form of cake, and sees the beauty of a person's hands over the course of the picture.

  • Scarlet Johannson in Under the Skin

This theme is the most disturbing part of the movie and is played out vividly in two horrifying scenes, one of which is played out as a baby is left screaming on a beach as the alien watches on. It is also illustrated horribly during the movie's conclusion. Glazer seems to want to suggest that any newcomer to our planet would sadly have to witness the horror, violence and debased morality that is at play in the world; this sadness is realised in the final frame of the movie and it fits within the noir like melancholy that embodies the whole movie.

The problem with the movie is that while it has a lot of narrative themes it does feel like a series of artistic vignettes rather than anything that manages to realise something that is emotionally nourishing. The movie reminded me of Nicholas Winding Refn's Only God Forgives (2013) in terms of the fact that the central characters have little dialogue and are used essentially as a visual effect (this is not a negative facet of Johannson's performance). While attempting to point toward a broader thematic canvas, the director cannot do it in a way that envelopes the audience beyond the love of the symbolic, abstract themes and ideas at play. I must also indicate that Only God Forgives made it into my top ten list from last year and I adore the audacity I saw in that movie from its creative team and the same may be true of this one.

Jonathan Glazer has done brilliantly to realise his vision of Michael Faber's novel in a creative process that took years to come to a conclusion. His female star encapsulates the isolation of an planetary immigrant beautifully. The movie is superb, but despite its artistic and thematic beauty. I still felt like an outsider looking in, and perhaps that statement points toward some of the thematic genius at play in this wonderfully flawed piece of cinema.