Why was the first-ever movie premiere at the restored United Artists Theatre at the Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles packed with hipsters Tuesday night? While the likes of Miranda July and Mike Mills, Miguel Artega, Chloe Sevigny, Vincent Gallo, Rian Johnson and Karina Longworth, The Ravenettes’ Sharin Foo, Matt Dentler, Catherine Hardwicke, David Lowery and Kevin Smith were checking out the gloriously ornate 1600-seat 1927 movie palace, which was hosting its first premiere in 25 years, they were also eager to see Jonathan Glazer’s visually stunning “Under the Skin,” starring Scarlett Johansson, which A24 scooped up out of Venice, Telluride and Toronto, where it earned claps and boos. (Reviews are more upbeat.) The long-in-the works atmospheric sci-fi thriller backed by a hodge-podge of financiers (including Film Four, BFI, Scottish Screen, Silver Reel and foreign sales company FIlmNation) opens stateside in select cities on April 4th. (Trailer below.)
Could it work here too? Well, having Johansson as a nameless alluring alien trawling for human specimens in the foggy crags of Scotland doesn’t hurt. Nor does the fact that you’ve never seen a movie quite like this before. From the disorienting opening frames, music video director Glazer’s first feature film in a decade is clearly more akin to the provocative “Birth” than his 2000 paeon to kinetic violence, “Sexy Beast.” Based on a 2001 novel by Michael Faber, “Under the Skin” leaves the audience guessing as to why this strange woman is luring men to a house with an inky black interior and deep pool to trap her prey.
In one of many arresting shots, a victim, as if suspended in amber, gazes up at her feet crossing overhead. (Glazer was partly inspired by images of oil-covered birds.) Glazer shot the film with unrehearsed non-pros who responded live to Johansson’s queries as Glazer captured them with hidden cameras. In another sequence, our lonely alien, who neither eats nor sleeps, gazes implacably at a violent tableau as the ocean surf breaking on a rocky shore swallows up a man trying to save his wife as their baby howls on the beach. Our virtually silent girl slams the heroic swimmer who tried to rescue them on the head with a rock and drags him, past the screaming baby, to her van. The role has one similarity to Johansson’s OS in “Her”: can she absorb what it is to be human?
At the “Under the Skin” afterparty at Umami Burger, Glazer admitted that it meant a lot to him to not only be able to shoot the film he wanted–unique but not commercial–but for it to be embraced in Britain. He thanked Film Four’s Tessa Ross (who just announced her departure to become head of the National Theater). He hasn’t been able to focus on what he’ll do next.
Classic screening promoter Cinespia mounted the event in order to preview a planned new film series in the restored venue, which will also house dance, shows and concerts. Ace Hotel founder Alex Calderwood backed the restoration before he died in London last November.