Were it not already claimed by one of the most seminal of science-fiction movies, Alien would be a very suitable alternate title for Under The Skin. Superficially speaking, Jonathan Glazer’s first film in almost a decade is an extraterrestrial invasion story, featuring an undercover succubus from beyond the stars. What’s truly alien about it, however, is the manner in which Glazer twists that stock premise into something radically, unnervingly new. He’s wrapped a singularly strange art film in the fleshy tissue of a genre picture. But the disguise runs no deeper than a logline, as the Kubrickian dread of the opening scene will make instantly clear. Walk in expecting Species and you’ll have your mind cleanly blown.
Loosely adapted from a novel by Michel Faber, Under The Skin strips its outlandish scenario down to bare bones, cutting away all but the faintest traces of exposition and conventional character development. Stalking the streets of Glasgow in a nondescript van, a nameless visitor (Scarlett Johansson, downright otherworldly in her blankness) cruises for companions. The clueless dudes who take the bait are then spirited back to her lair, which looks on the outside like a standard-issue flat. On the inside, however, it’s an empty chamber, its black or white walls expanding outward in all directions, its floor a kind of treacherous tar pit for any poor human soul who enters. What does the predator want with her prey? Under The Skin lets its nightmarish imagery do the talking, forgoing explanation in favor of total sensory immersion.
Uniquely, the wisp of a sci-fi plot unfolds entirely from the perspective of its near-mute “monster.” This allows Glazer, the increasingly adventurous English director of Birth and Sexy Beast, to make a “normal” environment seem threateningly abnormal. Sonic texture plays a crucial role in the disorientation: The complex sound design, coupled with Mica Levi’s superbly sinister score, suggests a world of natural sounds being received and vaguely distorted by inhuman ears. The sporadically vérité shooting style—another rarity in cinema of the fantastic—only enhances the sense that Glazer has entered the headspace of his heroine. The director claims to have shot incognito during scenes of Johansson chatting up the locals, the actress’ raven locks somehow rendering her unrecognizable to passersby. The men’s accents, so thick as to sometimes approach incomprehensibility, may leave American audiences feeling as alienated as the main character. We, too, are intruders in this place.
Under The Skin is rich with menacing atmosphere, so much so that viewers could probably tune out the narrative and still get on the proper wavelength. That said, the film is also an unlikely, un-missable showcase for its lead actress. Cast as much for her sex-symbol status as her chops, Johansson nevertheless delivers one of her most astonishing performances—one that essentially finds her playing a performer, albeit an unearthly one. Every gesture is artificial, every mannerism is a forced approximation of human behavior. This character, this creature on the prowl, is doing little more than an impersonation of mating rituals, but it’s working: Men impulsively flock to her, attracted to her receptiveness and unburdened by her apparent lack of personality. She’s the perfect seductress, more of a black widow here than she is as the Black Widow of the Marvel movies. But the film’s best scenes—including a haunting moment on the beach and a weirdly poignant encounter with a disfigured potential victim—also suggest a dawning moral awareness in the femme fatale. Just when Under The Skin seems to have settled into its groove, the film breaks in a new direction.
Mostly episodic, at least for the better part of its first half, Glazer’s primal mood piece isn’t as abstract as some of its champions have made it out to be. (Every moment, no matter how hypnotically strange, has a literal interpretation.) But that doesn’t mean there’s not deeper meaning squirming under the skin of Under The Skin. Glazer has made a ferociously original thriller that feels like a stealth gender study, starring a moonlighting Hollywood celebrity as both object and source of a voyeuristic gaze. Look past the film’s seductive surfaces to the meaty mess beneath, ready to be extracted like vital nutrients.