Review: ‘Under the Skin’ is a mysterious sci-fi with a mesmerizing ScarJo

Scarlett Johansson plays a predatory alien in "Under the Skin." Credit: A24
Scarlett Johansson plays a predatory alien in “Under the Skin.”
Credit: A24

‘Under the Skin’
Director: Jonathan Glazer
Stars: Scarlett Johansson, a bunch of dudes
Rating: R
5 (out of 5) Globes

Like most directors, Jonathan Glazer is a fan of Stanley Kubrick. The opening of “Under the Skin” is a parade of seeping imagery, not unlike the light show in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” But it’s not a straight lift. It’s more dreamy than mind-melting, and Glazer puts it not near the end but at the very start. This means our introduction to the film’s world is a blue dot, then a beaming, circular object heading away from us. Is it a UFO? A projector? The image looks faintly familiar, but it’s been abstracted to the point that it could be nearly anything.

As it turns out, “Under the Skin” is an art-house “Species,” with Scarlett Johannson playing a seductive killer alien trolling for horny bros in Glasgow. That’s a glib way of putting it, but Glazer wants to play with our expectations even as he’s beating his film into a genuinely unique shape. He lifts from Kubrick, Ingmar Bergman, avant-garde imagist Jordan Belson, Claire Denis, Nicolas Roeg and more, but the end product still feels sui generis.

The source novel, by Michael Faber, has a clear explanation for what Johansson’s character — billed only as “The Girl” — is doing. Here, we know little and only have bits of info parceled out. She cruises around town in a van, stopping to ask directions of the type young men who might be into Scarlett Johansson. Some of them get in, and go back to her place, which turns out to have a dark room where they disrobe and — with apparent, unnerving willingness — are immersed in a tar-black amniotic fluid. For what purpose? We never learn.

Some, but not all, of these pickups are real. Johansson really did drive around Glasgow, hitting on men while disguised in a black wig and using a not bad British accent. During these scenes, shot on the sly, Johansson strikes a precarious balance between friendly and flirty. When she’s not doing these scenes, she’s mesmerizingly impenetrable. She’s not a blank, but you scan her face for any feeling when she watches two people drown in the ocean, and only reacts by pulling one of the bodies out for her own purposes.

This is actually heading for more traditional territory, with Johansson’s character making like David Bowie in “The Man Who Fell to Earth” and embarking on steps, however hesitant, to become more human. But the transition isn’t so smooth, and we never get inside our anti-hero’s mind. There’s a turning point in which she nabs a man with a facial deformity — but the scene stretches out the tension of where it will go, and it keeps the big, resulting beat off-screen.

Glazer himself is hard to pin down. He’s a shape-shifter, who graduated from memorable music videos — including the one for U.N.K.L.E.’s “Rabbit in Your Headlights,” in which “Holy Motors”’ Denis Lavant keeps getting hit by cars in a tunnel — to British crime (“Sexy Beast”) and an unsettling look at the power of self-deception (“Birth”).

“Under the Skin” is something else. It’s a choking mood piece with a bit of mostly blunted sci-fi that makes room for “Candid Camera” interludes. There’s remarkable fluidity between its many shapes. Even the hidden camera footage bears the underlit, spooky quality of the rest of the film. (It also gets a huge assist from Mica Levi’s spacy score, which builds quaking tension out of a melody made of a mere three notes.) “Under the Skin” sometimes feels like it should be more elusive, but the moment you try and lock it down it slips away from you, going off into weirder territory.

It even embraces, not ignores, the celebrity of its star and plays on it. Yes, dudes will get their ScarJo screengrabs, but the nudity, as handled, is almost defiant — as though she was owning these moments of undress before they flood cyberspace. Johansson doesn’t often get the chance to strut her stuff, and isn’t a pro at everything; she may have the action moves for “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” but she mumblemouths all of her one-liners. Here she’s relaxed yet creepily distant. You get the sense of a consciousness that is legitimately alien; not even she knows who she is. The character, Johansson and the film are always just out of touch.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge



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