Under the Skin burrows its way into the psyche with a controlled visual and aural onslaught that dazzles and unnerves in equal measure. It’s accessibly abstract, a collection of stunning images and sonic cues that beg for exhaustive analysis while remaining coherent cogs in an efficient storytelling machine. The fantastical story of an extra-terrestrial masquerading as a sexy woman and preying on unsuspecting men is tackled head-on, but it’s also used as a jumping-off point to ask intriguing questions on humanity and ponder what it’s like to view our world through alien eyes. Director Jonathan Glazer and his co-writer Walter Campbell have loosely adapted Michael Faber’s 2000 novel into a singular entity that excises sci-fi minutiae and blunt social commentary in favor of a more experiential and provocative endeavor.
The alien takes the humanoid form of Scarlett Johansson (credited as “Laura,” though I don’t recall the name ever being spoken in the film), introduced after a Kubrickian sequence where black and white orbs merge into an eye as words are repeated in modulated tones. After procuring clothes from a roadside corpse, she trolls Glasgow and the Scottish Highlands in a white cargo van, prowling for solitary men to seduce and destroy. The unlucky loners who fall victim to her charms are led to a stark home where they become acquainted with what’s under the floor rather than what’s under Laura’s clothes.
What exactly is the black goo in the floor that traps the men? What is the purpose of the alien’s detached aggression? Who is the motorcycle-riding facilitator that keeps tabs on the proceedings? Glazer doesn’t bother fussing over unnecessary details, realizing that these and other questions are much more stimulating than any concrete answers. In the book, the men are harvested as a delectable food product for the alien’s home planet, but in the film they’re victims of an unknown objective. It’s a constant reliance on atmosphere – not trivial plot – that drives a haunting meditation on the presence and absence of identity, loneliness, and empathy.
One method of attaining authenticity is having Johansson – wearing a black wig and sporting a British accent – interact with non-actors on the street, capturing conversations via hidden cameras in the van. The chance meetings make us feel uncertain of what’s to come. Feelings that are reinforced in stirring scripted sequences: the alien’s icy reaction to – and cruel exacerbation of – a tragedy on a rocky beach, or her transformative encounter with a severely disfigured man (Adam Pearson).
Just as the cycle of meeting-mesmerizing-murdering borders on tedious, the back half of the film breaks the monotony and follows Johansson’s scared and scarred being in a feeble attempt to explore the foreign surroundings as a human. An indulgent piece of chocolate cake doesn’t stimulate her taste buds, and efforts to physically or philosophically connect with men prove impossible and/or terrifying.
Johansson’s performance is astonishing and serves as a bizzaro companion piece to her appearance in Her. In that film she was captivating as a disembodied voice, and in Under the Skin she’s magnetic as a character that is ogled from every angle but rarely speaks. No question her much-admired physical attributes greatly assist in Glazer’s fetishizing of the womanly form, but she’s also required to subtly convey coldness and longing, and pulls it off brilliantly. The calculated ways in which she moves are at once alluring and otherworldly.
All of the individual elements, including the eerie percussive score from first-time composer Mica Levi, come together in a marriage of craft and content that is intensely affecting. We become swept away in the unique atmosphere of the film without ever feeling completely lost in the dense woods. With his first feature since 2004’s Birth, Glazer has constructed an ambitious, naturalistic opus that isn’t easy to shake. Here’s to hoping we don’t have to wait another decade for what’s next.