The subject of invasion and visitors from beyond the stars is a theme as common in cinema as romance and lone altruism. Yet, even the most avid sci-fi aficionado would be hard pressed to uncover something more alien and otherworldly than Jonathan Glazer’s cryptic signal, Under the Skin. Flickering between images like a veiled threat of extraterrestrial assimilation, this is a truly foreign world presented to unsuspecting viewers.
Obviously a passion project for the director of Sexy Beast and Birth, and even moreso for star Scarlett Johansson who goes out on a flying saucer to stratospheric limits never before traveled, Under the Skin aims to do exactly what the title implies. It crawls inside audiences’ expectations and stimulations, lulling the most susceptible into a world of seductive annihilation, not unlike its onscreen marks. And yet, it feels strangely like a space voyage that many may dither about approaching.
A relatively simple conceit, Johansson is Laura, a posh English-speaking predator who prowls Scotland in her jalopy like a carnivore at a butcher shop. The choice meat is easy to spot: loners, introverts, and any male walking alone. There is a certain type she might take a special pleasure in ensnaring, if in fact she takes pleasure in anything. As ultimately an alien succubus from another world who has come to ours in the tantalizing form of Scarlett Johansson, men don’t stand a chance at avoiding a kiss from this demon lover. What exactly that demon loves to do with her victims is unclear, save for that there are more than one of her kind (though she appears to be the only female) and that humanity’s titular skin goes a long way for a purpose that seems less than peaceful.
A juicy premise that sounds far, far more commercial than it is, Under the Skin takes bountifully from its influences of The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) and the more exploitative Species (1995). Yet, despite the latter’s influences, and the much ballyhooed rumors that Ms. Johansson fully disrobes in this picture (true), this is not a movie for sci-fi fetish enthusiasts. Johansson’s fleeting skin baring is firstly eclipsed by the many men she lures to a truly indescribable fate, and the movie tends to provoke and confound in preference over titillating or seducing.
Barely disqualified from the category of silent films, Under the Skin quietly observes like a secondary, voyeuristic species of alien during Laura’s nightly and sometimes daily rituals. Her driving through industrial and urban Scotland is accompanied by a pulsating score from Mica Levi that takes on a hypnotic quality with each passing street and every wayward lamb for the slaughter. The movie eventually morphs into a nightmarish funhouse, where every surface reflects a distortion that’s even more deceptive than Laura’s comely form. The room in which she finalizes her ceremonial temptations is little more than an empty void of blackness as nebulous as the movie’s hushed ambiance. Nevertheless, Johansson’s presence is so alluring that no man notices that the only other item in their room is their naked reflection staring back at them from a glassy slate floor. Nor do they take into account that the floor literally turns into a pool that swallows them whole.
Indeed, it is in that blackness and its binary inverse where Under the Skin most appropriately exists. Being the only two colors of choice for Laura’s habitation away from the highland streets, they represent her initially absolutist viewpoint about her strange mission of finding and retrieving. Despite fleshy overtures, the most memorable sequence in the film centers on Laura’s dispassionate observance of a couple drowning in the Irish Sea (she did not facilitate their demise) and her absent-minded ignorance of their small wailing child on the crusty coast. Not meeting her obvious specimen requirements, she leaves the babe for many of the other predators that were likely scouting the impending tide.
Unfortunately, the movie’s unrelenting atmosphere must give way to a form of perceived growth in its protagonist, if only to reach the necessary 100-plus minutes to qualify as a feature. The result is the very Man Who Fell to Earth self-awareness and character arc that begins with Laura meeting a human so pitiable that even she can no longer ignore our appeal. Falling in love with her skin as much as many of her male viewers from The Avengers and other Marvel movies, Johansson’s Laura becomes something of a stoic reveler in the human experience, ultimately opting to go renegade from her fellow travelers and get lost in the Scottish wilds. This third act evolution for the character feels obligatory and causes the movie’s spell to break as it stumbles along wooded paths to an abrupt and not particularly satisfying conclusion.
Nonetheless, the project is obviously meant to be a performing coup for its star. As an actress who has spent much of her career avoiding roles that embrace her blond bombshell image, as well as suffering from a few miscastings that have left the more snarky and smug to write off her talents, Johansson has never allowed herself to be more visibly vulnerable onscreen than in Glazer’s aberrant hands. The result is clearly not exploitative, but it isn’t quite the triumph that either may have been hoping for. To be sure, Johansson turns in an excellent performance that proves many naysayers wrong with its ability to mesmerize despite lacking much in the way of dialogue (or, in the end, plotting). Ironically, her disembodied performance in Spike Jonze’s Her from last year was the far more substantial victory that she was looking for: a metaphysical turn that haunted and moved millions of moviegoers without even a pair of eyes to reflect the undoubted soul found in shapeless Samantha.
Something of a companion piece to that movie, Under the Skin is the complete reversal of Her with the way it relies not at all on her voice and instead seeks to use the human form to demystify that body in the guise of something wholly biological and devoid of the divine spark that Laura so desperately seeks by the movie’s final scenes. It evades her as much as the film, yet is still too enticing to look away from. In that sense, Johansson makes it impossible to resist the movie’s tractor beam.