Under the Skin

May 31, 2014
Scarlett Johansson in 'Under the Skin' (2013)
Scarlett Johansson in 'Under the Skin' (2013)

Michel Faber’s novel, Under the Skin (2000), was that rarest of beasts: a science fiction story with real literary merit. I say that as a reader who has dipped into science fiction for decades and identified only a handful of authors – notably Philip K. Dick and Stanislaw Lem – that ever made me feel like going back for a second helping.

Under the Skin introduced a new kind of heroine – Isserley – an alien surgically transformed to resemble a human being, who drives around Scotland in an old Toyota, picking up male hitchhikers who are taken back to a plant for processing. The four-legged inhabitants of Isserley’s planet have developed a taste for human meat, which is sold as an expensive delicacy.

In the novel, Isserley’s race refer to themselves as human beings, while earthlings are “Vodsels”. With black humour Faber explored issues of race, gender, vivisection, and what it meant to be a terminal outsider. Seeing the hitchhikers through Isserley’s eyes, they really did seem to be talking beasts.

British director, Jonathan Glazer, has borrowed Faber’s core idea of an alien in the shape of a woman who drives around picking up male hitchhikers. Almost everything else in this adaptation is radically different from the novel, with the changes lending the story a degree of mystery that can be almost incomprehensible.

In Glazer’s version none of the characters have names. We begin by seeing the protagonist taking the clothing of a young woman who seems to have drowned. She is aided by a nameless man on a motorcycle who tidies up the evidence. In this version she sits behind the wheel of a big 4 wheel drive, and lures her victims back to a darkened dwelling where they literally disappear into the floor while thinking only of sexual conquest.

It’s never quite clear what happens next. We can see that the males are turned into some sort of gloop, but it is nothing like the orderly farming and processing that takes place in the novel. Glazer and his scriptwriter, Walter Campbell, take the story into a dark, psycho-sexual realm where desire is punished with infernal torments.

Crucial to this impression is the character of the alien seductress, who will be both hunter and hunted as the story progresses. Whereas Faber’s Isserley is a stunted, near-crippled figure with oversized breasts, the film’s protagonist is Scarlett Johansson, admired as one of the sexiest women in Hollywood. Despite this reputation, Johansson has shown a marked reluctance to do the nude scenes that seem obligatory today for actresses young and old. She sheds most of those inhibitions in this film, although these moments are modest compared to the voyeurisic excesses of movies such as Blue is the Warmest Colour.

At the beginning of the story Johansson’s character seems only slightly more nuanced than David Bowie’s portrayal of a spaced-out alien in Nic Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976). Bowie, however, has acted like an alien in every movie, whereas Johansson is able to inject a little life into the role as she gradually begins to see her victims in a more sympathetic light, developing a distaste for her work. Confused about her own neither-nor identity, she wonders if she can live as an earthling, among earthlings. This development leads to the introduction of new characters, including a hitchhiker whose face is horribly enlarged and disfigured by a form of neurofibromatosis; and a good samaritan who offers her food and shelter.

Glazer is known as a director of rock videos for bands such as Radiohead, and Under the Skin borrows a few tricks from the shorter format. A buzzing, whirring, electronic score by Mica Levi adds to the feeling of alienation we associate with Johansson’s character. The stylised scenes in which the victims grope blindly after their tormentor could be taken directly from a video.

Some of the pick-ups were allegedly filmed in ‘candid camera’ style, with a disguised Johansson pulling over to talk to lads who answer her questions in the thickest, most unfathomable Scottish dialect. One might see this as an investigation into the nature of celebrity. Who among us would recognise a black-haired Scarlett Johansson if she pulled up alongside us on a suburban street to ask directions?

With any adaptation of a successful novel a director cannot slavishly follow the original plot, but must find a way to reshape the material cinematically. What is gained must be at least equal to what is lost, but it’s debatable whether or not Glazer has achieved that balance. The discussion of vivisection, for instance, has given way to a more intense focus on human relationships. It’s also disturbing that the story gains in sexual titillation what it loses in clarity, although many will find this a perfectly fair exchange.

Under the Skin
Directed by Jonathan Glazer
Screenplay by Walter Campbell & Jonathan Glazer, from a novel by Michel Faber
Starring Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams, Adam Pearson, Michael Moreland
UK, rated MA 15+, 108 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 31 May, 2014.