Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin was without a doubt my favourite film released (in the UK) in 2014, and is, in fact, potentially my favourite film of the decade so far. I admit, I have a great weakness for films that observe humanity through alien eyes, and it is this entirely new perspective that Under the Skin provides so mesmerizingly through every aspect of the film, from the acting to the cinematography to the soundtrack.
The score is particularly effective; the discordant music that accompanies our observation of the protagonist leading their victims into their surreal lair perfectly creates a sense of unreality, as if something is being forced where it doesn’t belong, mirroring the central theme of the alien in a human body, a human world.
Scarlett Johansson’s acting is superb in this regard; the simplest of actions seem too deliberate somehow, as if learned from a textbook on how to be human. In my favourite scene of the film we simply see her eating a slice of cake, but too carefully, too precisely; she lifts a bite slowly to her mouth as if the fork is heavy and unfamiliar in her hand, as if unsure of their actions, and yet trying to savour these small human experiences. Until they choke, disrupting the rhythm of the entrancing action, and we are abruptly reminded that they do not belong, that this is not the story of an alien who grows to fit in.
The frequent shots of ordinary, everyday lives of various humans help to further separate Johansson’s character from them, especially since these images are juxtaposed with the abstract, minimal, almost old science fiction film style scenes in which their victims are killed.
There is no real character development, but this is not an issue at all; the appeal of the film lies in observing the world through alien eyes, rather than in observing the alien themselves. Sympathy for the protagonist perhaps arrives around 2/3 of the way through the film, for example, when they begin to examine their body, as if examining the differences between themselves and the human world they are becoming involved in, or when they are confused by a comedic television programme but taps their fingers to a song on the radio.
As Johansson’s character becomes more disheveled and acts less neatly put together, they appear to become more human somehow, more open to feeling, and we are presented with the true nature of humanity as messy, raw, and rough. Ultimately, the sympathy for the protagonist is caused by the fact that they are forced to exist alongside humankind.
The point of the film, in my opinion, is to ask questions about the nature of humanity, and arguably the perspective we’re given is a negative one. Humanity quite literally destroys the alien, the outsider, ripping their human form open, and leaving the viewer with an image that is both beautiful and harrowing at the same time.
I cannot recommend this film enough; the cinematography is stunning, the acting is perfect, and every element of the film compliments the theme of not belonging, the atmosphere of a world that is cruel and chaotic. Glazer’s offers a unique perspective in Under the Skin and ultimately this is what made it my favourite film of 2014.
Other great films released in 2014 (in the UK, though I did see some wonderful films at the Melbourne International Film Festival this summer that are yet to be released here) that I think are worth mentioning are David Richard Mitchell’s terrifying It Follows (which I hated every minute of, meaning as a horror film it was absolutely fantastic, not to mention the cinematography was absolutely stunning), Spike Jonze’s Her, Paweł Pawlikowski‘s Ida, Edward Berger’s Jack (this one I saw in Melbourne, but I had to include it here), Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (the most thought provoking vampire movie I have ever seen), Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, and my runner up for best film of the year, Lukas Moodysson’s We Are the Best! which was absolutely charming; Moodysson continually produces some of my favourite works of cinema and of this list this is the one I most highly recommend if you have not yet seen it.
Here’s to more great cinema in 2015!