If you’re a random male pedestrian and a gal who looks like Scarlett Johansson ever pulls up and offers to take you to her place for a quickie, the logical thing to do would be run like hell, since this could only be either a sting or a sign of the apocalypse, no matter how good looking a fellow you are. But lust trumps logic as Johansson lures a bevy of bros to their doom in “Under the Skin,” which screened Friday night at the Telluride Film Festival.
Director Jonathan Glazer, previously best known for “Sexy Beast,” definitely has a seductive monster in ScareJo—er, ScarJo—this time. This is no Aileen Wuornos Goes Glam story, though, with the “2001“-style imagery at the start being a tip-off that Johansson is not your garden-variety female serial killer but rather an actual alien abductor in butt-hugging stonewashed jeans. If this sounds like a “Species” sequel with incongruous A-list casting, you’d be more on track putting Natasha Henstridge’s man-eating aside and instead picturing a sister film to “The Man Who Fell to Earth.” Glazer shares Nicolas Roeg’s taste in elliptical storytelling and interplanetary tragedy, arriving at something you could almost call horror with a heart.
The midnight showing at Telluride puzzled at least a few weary attendees. Glazer clearly isn’t interested in over-explaining anything when we first meet Johansson, who’s nude (not for the last time in the film) and appears to be adopting the physicality of a recently deceased corpse. The body has been delivered to her by an equally mysterious alien in male form who rides around the Scottish highlands on a motorcycle, cleaning up messes after the abductions but also keeping an eye on his comely partner for any signs of faithlessness to their cruel agenda. (Yes, aliens on choppers… it’s not as silly as it sounds.)
Glazer wisely spends much of the first half of the film giving us montages of Johansson picking up strangers, without a clue as to how the seat next to her became empty before her next hunting expedition. When we do finally get a glimpse of what happens to the victims after Johansson lures them to her would-be boudoir, the film suddenly sheds its local color and naturalism and takes us just far enough into the alien lair to quietly offer some of the creepiest imagery you’re likely to see in any movie this year. It’s in these disturbingly shiny scenes where Glazer’s background as a director in the pre-YouTube era of music videos comes through, to nightmare-inducing effect.
But there’s a lot more at play here than how to top “Fire in the Sky” for abduction imaginings. If you follow ufology lore, you know that aliens are largely regarded in abductees’ recountings as Third Reich-like scientists who don’t seem bound by empathy or interested in abiding by any Geneva conventions. So Glazer’s concern, essentially, is: What if a Nazi developed a conscience? That’s what eventually seems to happen once Johansson abducts a man with severe facial deformities and, in a weirdly touching series of scenes, shows hints of sympathy for her deeply lonely, Elephant Man-like prey. But, she has those Harley-riding compatriots to contend with, along with some fleet examples of the best and worst of humanity.
Johannson turns out to be perfectly cast, being able to shift from blank alien mode to kittenish seduction without ever letting you see the switch being turned on or off. Her participation won’t likely be enough to get a broad audience to “Under the Skin,” given its somber pacing and downer themes, although stills of the actress’s lingerie scenes frankly might help. The denouement, while fitting as well as unexpected, may not be satisfying enough to cause a run on arthouses, either. But a cult audience with a penchant for SF morality tales may warm to this chilly girl-who-fell-to-earth story. [B+]