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


OkCupid admits to Facebook-style experimenting on customers

By Sarah McBrideSAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - OkCupid, a top U.S. matchmaking website, intentionally mismatched users to test its technology, the IAC/InterActive Corp service said on…


MTA fares still increasing 4 percent in newly…

The agency said the 4 percent increases, previously announced in December, will remain steady even as the MTA deals with increasing labor costs.


De Blasio, Bratton defend city's efforts after Eric…

Mayor Bill de Blasio justified the city's response to the death of Eric Garner, a Staten Island man who died while in police custody earlier this month.


PHOTO: New Zealand Heral uses wrong image to…

The New Zealand Herald made a terrible mistake of using the wrong image to illustrate the tragic death of Staff Sergeant Guy Boyland – a New Zealand-born Israeli soldier who…


Interview: Brendan Gleeson on the way 'Calvary' depicts…

Brendan Gleeson talks about how his new film "Calvary" began over drinks and how his character here is the opposite of the lead in "The Guard."


'Get on Up' producer Mick Jagger on the…

Mick Jagger, a producer on the James Brown biopic "Get on Up," talks about the time had to tell the singer some bad news and his favorite JB record.


'Glee' star Lea Michele to appear on 'Sons…

"Glee" star Lea Michele has been confirmed as a guest star in the final season of "Sons of Anarchy."


TV watch list, Monday, July 28: 'The Bachelorette'…

See Andi Dorfman make her big choice on tonight's 'Bachelorette' finale.


Larry Donnell has inside track in Giants tight…

Little-known Larry Donnell of Grambling State currently has the inside track, as the second-year player has received the bulk of the first-team reps.


Computer to Jets: Start Michael Vick over Geno…

Jets general manager John Idzik says the choice of who starts between second-year quarterback Geno Smith and veteran Michael Vick will be a “Jets decision.”


Yankees looking to trade for Josh Willingham: Report

CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman reported Sunday the Yankees are interested in Twins outfielder Josh Willingham.


Joe Torre: I'm in Hall of Fame because…

Joe Torre spent 18 years putting together a near Hall of Fame career as a player. But it was the 12 years he spent as…


Glasgow: Hey, hey, the gangs aren't here

This European city has done a good job getting rid of its more violent residents and revitalizing with artists.


Babson College tops list of best colleges for…

Money magazine has just released its inaugural list of "The Best Colleges for Your Money" -- and the answers have surprised many. Babson College, which…


NYC teens learn how to develop apps during…

Through a program sponsored by CampInteractive, the high schoolers designed their own community-focused apps.


The Ministry of Silly Walks app is both…

Monty Python have dug into their back catalogue for cash-ins once more, but with the Ministry of Silly Walks app, they've made something that's fun too.