Attended by director Jonathan Glazer and producer James Wilson along with many of their local cast, the closing night gala of the 2014 Glasgow Film Festival was a homecoming for a project which Wilson has been working on for a full decade. A very loose adaptation of Michel Faber’s 2000 novel, it was principally filmed on the streets of Glasgow with Scarlett Johansson’s character filmed via hidden cameras as she interacts with the people she approaches, sometimes asking for directions, sometimes for more, the consent of the individuals obtained only when the scene was complete.
A daring experiment in filmmaking, the creators confirmed in the following discussion that permission was sometimes refused and also the risk of releasing their star into the wild of the Buchanan Street Galleries shopping centre in the run up to the 2012 festive season, knowing should she be recognised the game would be up. Johansson’s willingness to expose her vulnerability and to perform without a safety net is matched by other aspects of the production, giving it a raw and unpredictable immediacy, the unscripted encounters honest and unrehearsed.
A document not of acting but of behaviour, Glazer explained he was seeking “that beautiful lack of awareness when [people] don’t know they’re being watched,” and the outsider watching humanity is a key theme of the film, as Johansson’s unnamed character arrives on Earth via a celestial event, taking human form and setting about interacting with the native species, occasionally accompanied by a facilitator clad in biker leathers with whom she has a wordless arrangement.
Opening on a dreich dark night on a lonely Scottish road, the last remains of snow patching the hills, the film is initially composed of abstract images filled with darkness, only the edges given transient light, and the purpose and goal of the visitor are never made clear. Approaching men and requesting useless information simply in order to interact with them, there is a fascinating immediacy to their reactions which is heightened as the threat of the visitor becomes apparent to the viewer.
A performance as complete as her uncanny recreation of Janet Leigh in the excellent Hitchcock, Johansson’s transformation is total as she metamorphoses, a template onto which emotion is overlaid, her body a tool. At first dressed in clothes impractical for hillwalking, dressing with efficiency, no heed given to their form or function or the corpse she has pulled the clothes from, reserving her physicality for when she undresses for an audience, an entrancing and deadly provocateur.
Targeting loners, the weak of the herd, isolated from society, she invites the selected men back to her derelict lair, lured by her siren call and her red lips, where she makes them vanish without trace like they were never there. A brilliantly simple yet unforgettable visual of nightmarish entrapment as she guides them to their deaths, they are flies in amber, of no more consequence to her than the ant she encounters while first assuming her human form.
Witnessing human tragedy, she stands on the shore of life, indifferent and enigmatic, a capricious and unknowable storm which could break at any moment, but as detached as she is, she is also more gentle and caring than some of those she encounters, wild pack animals who roam the street looking for their own prey.
Never less than beautifully filmed, it contrasts the bustle of Glasgow city centre with the increasingly depressed council house suburbs and derelict industrial areas and the desolate beauty of the Scottish countryside beyond. Much of the film is in darkness, and even when there is daylight there is silence, the film remaining shrouded in fog and mystery.
While initially mesmerising, it loses traction after the first hour; with increased contact, the visitor enters the first stages of “going native,” and losing resolve begins to investigate humanity in other ways, but as she deviates from her unspecified mission so the film begins to meander, becoming almost irretrievably indulgent before gathering itself to a devastating finale.
With Glazer confirming that the book was “a stepping off point” rather than an adaptation, the most overt science fiction trope of the source has thankfully been removed; no longer are her victims fattened up to be harvested as the delicacy of human meat, obviating any direct comparison to Damon Knight’s 1950 short story To Serve Man, immortalised by The Twilight Zone in 1962 and later inspiration for Hungry Are the Damned, served up by The Simpsons in their very first Treehouse of Horror.
More akin to sensory experience of The Man Who Fell To Earth, filmed by Nicolas Roeg from the novel by William Tevis with David Bowie in the title role than the more outrageous alien killer woman who hunts men of Species, sacrificing that central narrative strand may have repositioned the film from trash to art house, but in failing to substitute an alternative Glazer has unfortunately hollowed out what could have been one of the most stunning and inventive films of the year. Disappointingly, under the skin, there is considerably less than had been expected.