Michel Faber’s 2000 science fiction novel “Under the Skin” follows an alien tasked with kidnapping earthlings and selling their bodies for consumption back home. Adapting the material into his first feature since 2004’s “Birth,” music video director Jonathan Glazer only borrows half that premise, following the extraterrestrial seductress (a virtually unrecognizable Scarlett Johansson) as she repeatedly nabs hapless male victims, but leaves her motives entirely offscreen. A totally wacky head-trip with midnight movie sensibilities and a daring avant garde spirit, Glazer’s movie is ultimately too aimlessly weird to make its trippy narrative fully satisfying, but owes much to Johansson’s intense commitment to a strangely erotic and unnerving performance unlike anything she has done before.
In the grand tradition of “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” Glazer’s movie drops us right into the thick of the alien’s experiences without a modicum of exposition to explain her arrival or intent. A shocking series of visuals open the story with bright flashes of color that eventually reveal an unblinking eyeball, followed by shots of Johansson’s character against a stark wide backdrop discovering her fresh human host. In the next several wordless minutes, she drives around Scotland in search of suitors while Mica Levi’s eerie soundtrack drifts in and out, furthering a sense of discombobulation associated with the mysterious point of view.
Eventually, the creature manages to nab one man and bring him back to her abode, where he follows her into a black abyss and eventually sinks hypnotically into an invisible liquid prison. Glazer thus establishes a cycle of entrapment that continues several more times over, as the alien makes her way to a local dance club and nabs a suitor there, then later lures a shy virgin with a birth defect to the same fate. While at first effectively unsettling, the scheme grows tiresome by its third iteration, and a slightly different variation in which the alien attacks a man and his family at the beach lacks much staying power.
Yet there’s no denying the movie’s technical accomplishments and the visceral impact that the movie constantly thrusts forward. Glazer supposedly shot much of the film using invisible cameras in real environments. The effect frequently pays off by creating an ongoing contrast between the believable environment and Johansson’s otherworldly presence in it. The dichotomy further develops in a later scene when Johansson’s character becomes suddenly more cognizant of her human body and seems to experience some kind of unearthly emotional breakdown.
Though her expression remains icily still for much of the running time, Johansson still manages to insinuate a fascinating degree of calculation with the slightest robotic motions and juxtaposing them with occasional dialogue scenes in which she uses charm to attract her victims (the alien is a quick study, it seems). As the movie provides a rumination on the performative nature of sexual attraction, Johansson takes the bait, throwing the full range of expressiveness and physical prowess into the role. There’s nothing remotely familiar about her appearance as she spends most of the movie hidden beneath a black mop and reigning in her typically energetic delivery. The actress has an appropriately exotic presence onscreen.
Yet Glazer show an even more extreme commitment to the zaniness of the material than his star. The climax, a mess of crossfades and pensive shots of trees as Johansson hides out in the wilderness, brings the movie’s meditative power to a vivid finale. From “Eraserhead” to “Beyond the Black Rainbow,” there are finer examples of such what-the-fuck caliber storytelling littered with imagery practically lifted from some f/x wizard’s subconscious. But Glazer certainly has managed to make one of the most outlandish portraits of alienation in recent memory. “Under the Skin,” no matter its faults, certainly will get under yours.
Criticwire grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? While too experimental for major commercial acclaim, the combination of star power, genre ingredients and sex should help the movie find a healthy home with a genre label able to play up its appeal on VOD.