Under The Skin | 2013
Jonathan Glazer’s chillingly minimal adaptation of Michel Faber’s novel explains little as it follows Scarlett Johansson’s nameless alien predator trawling the streets of Glasgow in a transit van for unattached men who won’t be missed when their organs are, in some strange way, harvested.
The film was shot almost entirely chronologically, much of it guerrilla-style with hidden cameras, bringing the kind of realism usually reserved for social dramas to its sci-fi plot.
Some have unfairly referred to the film as Species directed by Ken Loach but, in fact, is closer to Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 The Man Who Fell To Earth. Everyday sights become joltingly unfamiliar, as when Johansson finds herself in a bustling shopping mall. After the quiet stillness of the opening scenes, the Buchanan Galleries, 220 Buchanan Street in Glasgow suddenly appear as disorienting as the interior of an anthill in a nature documentary.
Eyeing potential prey, she drives silently through the city centre, along George Street toward George Square, and then through crowds leaving a match at Celtic Park, home of Celtic Football Club, in Parkhead, east of the city centre.
Fans who’d endured a dismal 0-0 draw with Hibernian were supposedly perked up by the sight of the Hollywood star driving around the ground, but this might be apocryphal since, deglamourised in a jet-black wig, Johansson was rarely recognised during filming. Witness the scene as real passers-by rush to help the woman who stumbles and falls to the pavement outside 119 Trongate, at New Wynd in the city centre.
She’s caught up in a gaggle of incomprehensibly shrieking girls on Almondside, off Howden South Road, in Livingston, West Lothian, on the M8 a few miles southwest of Edinburgh. After finding herself hustled into Club Earth, in the Almondvale Centre, she’s chatted up by an unfortunate clubgoer (Paul Brannigan).
About 60 miles to the north, at the foot of sheer, red sandstone cliffs on the beach at at Auchmithie, between Arbroath and Montrose, she demonstrates her shocking lack of empathy with humans, preying on a young swimmer who’s been trying to help a family in distress.
Rudimentary stirrings of human feelings, and with them vulnerability, are eventually triggered after an encounter with a shy and facially disfigured man (Adam Pearson).
She even allows herself to be sheltered by a quietly-spoken man (Michael Moreland) in his house, tucked away on a short row between Muirdykes Avenue and Glenside Road, in the town of Port Glasgow, on the A8, 15 miles to the west of Glasgow.
He takes her for a country walk, and they climb the ruins of Tantallon Castle, a formidable stronghold atop cliffs on the Firth of Forth. Built in the 1350s, Tantallon was the seat of the Douglas Earls of Angus, one of the most powerful baronial families in Scotland, enduring three great sieges in 1491, 1528 and 1651. The last, by Oliver Cromwell’s army, proved so devastating that the fortress was abandoned. The castle is also seen in Karan Johar’s 1998 Hindi romance, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai.
Beginning to appreciate humans as something a little more than a convenient source of nutrition, a tentative attempt at sexual contact freaks her out and she flees into the night, eventually bedding down in a stone-built bothy.
A bothy is a very basic shelter, usually left unlocked and available for anyone to use free of charge, most often in remote, mountainous areas of the Scottish Highlands, though you can also come across them in the north of England, Ireland, and Wales.
You can find more about this economical, if minimal, form of accommodation from the Mountain Bothies Association, which maintains many of them – including the one seen in the film. It’s Rowchoish Bothy, on the eastern shore of Loch Lomond, once the byre (cowshed) of Rowchoish cottage, which has been unoccupied since the late Thirties.
If you want to forsake five-star luxury and get closer to nature in a bothy, it’s important to follow the rules and also to assume that there will be no facilities – no tap, no sink, no beds, no lights and – even if there’s a fireplace as there is at Rowchoish – there may be nothing to burn. There may well be nothing more than a simple sleeping platform and, during busy periods, you might find that the only place to sleep is on a stone floor.
Away from the anonymity of city crowds and the safety of her van, the alien proves strangely vulnerable, lost in the misty woods. The primeval-looking forest is around Lochgoilhead, at the northern tip of Loch Eck in Argyll.