It's the film the pundits have been waiting for.
When Under the Skin has its world premiere at the Venice film festival on 3 September, it will represent the end of a tortured wait, both for its acclaimed director, Jonathan Glazer, and for the dedicated cinemagoers who have been patiently awaiting the follow-up to Glazer's last film, the chilly, mysterious Birth, which was released in 2003.
Speculation about Under the Skin has remained intense ever since it missed its planned 2012 release. Every major film festival for the last two years has sought it for their lineup, and industry watchers have confidently predicted it would show up in successive Cannes, Sundances and Torontos. In fact, its successive non-appearances rival those of Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, which sparked rumour after rumour until it finally materialised at Cannes in 2011, winning the Palme d'Or for its trouble.
Venice 2013, however, is the festival that has got Under the Skin, Glazer's third feature – and somewhat unusually it will be joined on the Lido by two other long-gestating films that film industry experts have anxiously anticipated for a number of years. Terry Gilliam's science fiction fable The Zero Theorem is to see the light of day four years after Gilliam first planned to shoot it, and Alfonso Cuarón's spacewalk thriller Gravity, with George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, will open Venice on Wednesday after months of delays due to the technical challenges faced by cast and crew.
Under the Skin is currently attracting the most buzz, as the first work for nine years from a much-admired British director, who won instant acclaim for his first film, Sexy Beast. It promises to be an equally unlikely spin on a familiar genre: adapted from a 2000 novel by the Dutch-Scots writer Michael Faber, it stars Scarlett Johansson as an alien being abducting hitchhikers for food. Faber's original was set in the Scottish Highlands, and Johansson plays the role in black wig, fake fur coat, stretch jeans and pixie boots.
In some ways Under the Skin feel as if it belongs to an earlier, braver era. Its slow crawl into existence is demonstrated by the fact that it is one of the last films to bear the marque of the UK Film Council, which was formally abolished more than three years ago. It was first announced as part of Film4's 2009 development slate alongside the likes of Four Lions, Neds and Attack the Block, by all of which it was comprehensively beaten into production. An announcement that Johansson had been cast followed the American Film Market (AFM) sales convention in November 2010. Shooting got under way in October 2011.
Yet nothing concrete has yet emerged other than a few stills of Johansson and an unheralded two-minute taster previewed at the Film4-sponsored horror festival Frightfest last month (typical reaction: "It looked bloody ace").
Film-makers have been at pains to stress the delay does not mean a troubled production, especially after it emerged that Johansson and Glazer were reshooting scenes in October 2012. The producer Jonathan Wilson told the Observer: "Jonathan really wanted to get certain elements of this story right. He wanted to get across the way that an alien might look at our culture, rather like we look at animals, and it took time to work this out."
But if Glazer has earned the indulgence of his peers through his film-making brilliance, it also no doubt helps that Under the Skin is firmly in the sci-fi/horror camp and can take advantage of the film world's most obsessive fans. The same is true of The Zero Theorem: it involves, as Gilliam has said, a "main character [who] is literally living in this burnt-out chapel … He's a computer genius but he's just sitting there waiting for a phone call, which he's hoping will give meaning to his life."
Like Under the Skin, The Zero Theorem has been jostling for production time for several years, but Gilliam – no stranger to the abandoned and/or postponed project – was forced to halt it in favour of another project, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, itself an attempt to restart a previously abandoned film, that was in turn called off again last year.
Originally intended to star Billy Bob Thornton, Gilliam apparently planned to shoot The Zero Theorem "quickly and cheaply" in 2009 but was unable to get it off the ground in the aftermath of his 2009 feature, The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus, which was affected by the death of the actor Heath Ledger during its shoot. Gilliam returned to the project in 2012 after The Man Who Killed Don Quixote fell apart again, and secured Christoph Waltz as his lead actor. That triggered a green light and he was able to start shooting.
Gilliam outlines the pitfalls of slow working: "For me it was just important that I got back to work … the longer you are out of work, the more you vanish from the reality of the film business … Now it's like I'm alive again out there. I've actually been living quite happily, but to the outside world or Hollywood, I've been a dead man."
Gravity, from the Mexican director Cuarón, is the biggest budget of the three long-awaited films, with an estimated cost of $80m. Cuarón, along with his regular director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki, says he was forced to invent a whole new method of film-making to authentically depict space-walking. With constantly shifting light sources and free-floating characters, Cuarón ended up developing a part-animated process that also included filming inside a giant glowing cube, with pre-programmed light and camera movements.
Cuarón, too, is quick to scotch any suggestion that Gravity is "troubled", after the parade of actors that were attached to it at one time or another. (Angelina Jolie, Robert Downey Jr and Natalie Portman came and went.) "It was never put on hold," he said. "We just couldn't start shooting straightaway, and then you start losing actors like crazy. Actors are constantly taking projects – some happen, some fall through. It's a constant flux."
Gravity Festival opener from the Children of Men director Alfonso Cuarón, a 3D thriller with George Clooney and Sandra Bullock as astronauts stuck outside their spacecraft.
Under the Skin Alien-horror hybrid starring Scarlett Johansson as a surgically reconstructed being snatching hikers from the Scottish mountains to feed. Directed by the long-silent Jonathan Glazer.
The Canyons A trash classic in the making, for sure. Paul Schrader directs Lindsay Lohan and the porn actor James Deen in a pulpy Bret Easton Ellis-scripted "erotic thriller".
The Unknown Known Errol Morris's latest study of the American political mindset, here interviewing Donald Rumsfeld, the former US secretary of defence. Expect a probing, façade-piercing film.
Philomena Drama inspired by the former BBC foreign correspondent and Downing Street spin doctor Martin Sixsmith and his book about a mother and child forcibly separated by the church, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee. Steve Coogan plays Sixsmith.
Child of God Cormac McCarthy adaptation from the prolific director-actor-artist James Franco. Scott Haze stars as the young outcast in 1960s Tennessee whose activities become ever more gruesome.
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image: © Jessica Diamond