Quiet and contemplative, Under the Skin is a great, involving, chilled analysis of the body and sci-fi in a way we haven’t had before.
Here is the undeniable fact about Scarlett Johansson: We all like looking at her. Often called one of the most beautiful actresses working, Johansson possesses an old-world Hollywood sultriness that ensures she’ll never be hurting for work. Not all directors, however, really know what to do with her, and she’s often saddled with roles that do not play to her strengths. In Under the Skin, not only does Johansson create a new kind of character of herself, but the type of character she plays seems to be in a reflective state of its own beauty. When Johansson appears fully frontally nude in this film (and yes, her nude scenes are numerous), it’s less to provoke and titillate as it is to contemplate and consider. We’ve always looked at this woman, but how often have we really thought about the way we look at her? This is a film that looks at a nude woman with biological curiosity more than prurience.
And even though Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin is ostensibly a sci-fi film about an alien being preying on the men of Scotland, one can see that he is not making a typical exploitation movie. This is sci-fi in the Tarkovsky mold, about atmosphere, confusion, dread, and long, long bouts of silence.
A creature from beyond the stars has come to Earth and taken the shape of an Earth woman who looks like Scarlett Johansson. The being is blank-faced most of the time, but seems capable enough to shop for clothes, have brief conversations with the locals, and even to lure men back to her place wit the promise of sex. Once the being gets men back to its place, it undresses and parades them through a creepy, seemingly-infinite black space where the men – perhaps hypnotized by her beauty – slowly sink into the floor, never to be heard from again. It is eventually revealed – sort of – what is happening beneath that floor, but there are no direct explanations.
Which is, I think, a better way to tell a sci-fi story about aliens. It helps if the creatures in question aren’t merely insidious, but also broadly ineffable. The being in question seems to be robotic most of the time, and baffled the rest of the time. You can tell through Johansson’s performance that this being is curious, uncomfortable, completely out of place amongst humans. When the being seduces a man with a severely deformed face, he journey takes her off the grid. She casually moves in with a local man without much in the way of conversation, and begins interacting with the locals on a non-seduction basis for the first time. A creature begins to have questions about its own body. Not that it begins to have appetites, but it’s finally beginning to notice just what kind of skin this is.
This is Jonathan Glazer’s third feature film after Sexy Beast and Birth. All three of this films have gorgeous, boldly surreal, musically complex meditations on otherwise rote genre material. They are opaque, and yet we understand them. Under the Skin, even through its more uneventful segments, is still a ripping and compelling intellectual provocation. It is a unique sci-fi film, and that’s a very valuable thing.