Extraterrestrials attempting to learn more about humanity is certainly not a new concept for movies. It’s been part of alien fiction since they stopped being allegories to the “Red Menace” and started being ways for humans to reflect on themselves more objectively. Probably the best example of this is Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth in which an alien man arrives and becomes a billionaire while attempting to restore his dying world. This almost assuredly is at least part of the basis for Jonathan Glazer’s film Under the Skin, however he seems more interested in silence than in reflection.
The film is fairly straightforward in its weirdness: Scarlett Johansson plays an alien wearing a human skin who drives around Scotland looking for men who have no family or friends to seduce and eventually abduct and kill. The exact purpose of the abduction is not explained, but we do know it involves putting the men in a hormone-fueled trance where they don’t realize they’re in a giant matte-black room and slowly sinking into a pool of water. From there, the men get their insides sucked out (for food maybe?) and their skin just floats around. She is monitored in this by a male alien who rides a motorcycle and cleans up after her. Most of the men she picks up are young and relatively healthy and very clearly think she’s gorgeous, which is pretty easy to believe.
Eventually, she picks up a young man with a severe facial deformity and attempts to do the same thing. She doesn’t quite understand why he’s looked at with fear by most people and she’s incredibly kind to him. However, she finds she can’t quite process the poor boy’s body and lets him go. She then runs away and attempt to understand the strange new emotions she’s feeling, even learning to appreciate why humans seem to think she’s attractive. But she isn’t human and the more she tries to be, the more hardships she’ll have to face, all while the motorcyclist looks for her.
Now as far as a plot goes, this is pretty good, and the way Glazer tackles this from the beginning is quite compelling: many of the young men Johansson picks up are inexperienced actors, and some aren’t actors at all. There are cameras affixed inside her automobile and the interactions she has with them are, more or less, unscripted. It’s never quite clear who is or is not a professional actor, though we have to assume the men who are shown going back and getting their meat sucked out were involved. The effect of this is to get as documentary-like and “objective” a camera as one can.
The beginning sequences with her driving around talking to people and then the very ethereal and weird scenes of the abducted men are compelling and interesting, despite the sparseness. Once Johansson begins to connect with humanity, however, the movie begins to lose a bit of steam for me. It’s a very, very slow movie with a runtime of 1hr 48min, and there’s far too much time from this point forward until the end and very little in the way of narrative but a lot in the way of scenes. What’s interesting is interesting, but they’re mere pockets throughout an otherwise empty landscape.
This is not to say Scarlett Johansson’s performance isn’t excellent, because it patently is. She does arguably the best acting of her career in Under the Skin, managing to effectively appear alien and disconnected with the world around her, then acting like a human for the purposes of seduction, and then going back to alien. It’s a masterclass in subtlety. It’s very common and easy to say that when an actress does as much nudity in a film as Johansson does in this one that they’re being “brave,” but it’s hard to argue with the way she manages to act completely unencumbered and uninhibited. There’s a scene where she examines herself in the mirror that really does feel like a being trying to understand itself.
Overall, Under the Skin is much more impressive in idea than execution, despite a truly brilliant lead performance and some effective and creepy alien visuals. It’s just a bit too sparse and a bit underdeveloped as a result.
The Blu-ray contains 45 minutes’ worth of making-of material which is interesting, but probably not worthy of the time its given… kind of like the movie itself.