One of the first images in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin is a tiny white dot at the center of a black screen. At what are we looking? An eclipse? The sun? The inner workings of a camera?
It’s an eye. There’s an ominous, stuttering music soundscape and the sound of a woman’s voice. It, too, is stuttering, as if it’s practicing speaking but not getting the words right. The eye and voice belong to Scarlett Johansson, an unnamed character whom we first see nude, on a white background, taking the clothes of a seemingly dead woman and putting them on herself. The white room is in the back of a van and before long, Johansson is driving the van, cruising for men on the streets of Glasgow, Scotland.
Under the Skin is eerie, grotesque and kind of sly. The men Johansson picks up—and there are many—are taken to an abandoned building where they’re seduced and held captive in a black goo that swallows them. They’re kept alive for an unknown amount of time until their bodies are sucked into an apparatus that leaves only their skin floating in the sludge; their innards are turned into slurry and sent down a conveyer belt.
The realization that Johansson is an alien arrives quickly. That she’s hunting men for food takes time to sink in. What’s more interesting than that story thread—which turns out to be secondary—is her attempted cultural assimilation.
At one point she picks up a man with a facial deformity and engages him in conversation. She tells him she likes his hands, and he touches her neck, which she also likes. Before long, she’s taken him to the abandoned building to seduce him. At first, it appears he’s been sucked into the inky blackness like everyone else, but he turns up later wandering aimlessly in a suburban backyard.
After letting that potential victim go, Johansson’s character embarks on a nearly wordless journey into what makes us human—and what makes her, appearances aside, decidedly not. Under the Skin is a hybrid of horror, sci-fi and existentialism, with all the camera work and production design horror and sci-fi imply. There’s also a naturalistic strain; the images of Johansson talking to men from the driver’s seat of the van have an uninflected quality that takes over full time when her character becomes more interested in humans as humans than as food.
The movie’s slyness comes into play in her wardrobe; Johansson the movie star is virtually unrecognizable under a bad wig, garish lipstick and an unattractive fur coat. Then, there’s the way she taps her fingers to music after seeing someone else do the same.
Above all, what makes Under the Skin so masterful is its absolute self-assurance. It knows what it is, and it doesn’t care whether the audience is on board or not—especially during the movie’s final 10 minutes, when the alien learns the hard way what humans are capable of.
Under the Skin isn’t for everyone. Those who do not enjoy meandering present-day sci-fi journeys about human nature should stay away. But Glazer (with great help from Johansson, composer Mica Levi and director of photography Daniel Landin) has made a movie that stands up with the best sci-fi epics. It’s truly unique, beautiful and strange.
Directed by Jonathan Glazer
With Scarlett Johansson
R 107 min.