Scarlett Johansson is occasionally nude: That’s all a sizable percentage of moviegoers need know about Under the Skin. They’re in for a surprise, which is like saying Hal 9000 is just another computer. Easily the most unique science fiction film I’ve come across in years, Under the Skin defies, shatters, and ultimately consumes genre boundaries like a randy wolf tonguing the raw marrow out of a particularly toothsome bone. However, Jonathan Glazer’s near-wordless film isn’t specifically or essentially a sci-fi picture. Although the film’s title and a minimal amount of story come from author Michael Faber’s 2000 novel, this is Glazer’s most hyperstylized and unnerving film since Ben Kingsley got on the wrong side of Ray Winstone and Amanda Redman in the director’s utterly self-assured feature debut, Sexy Beast. Up until that point Glazer was known primarily as the go-to savant for cutting- and bleeding-edge music videos and TV adverts. It was plainly evident, even then, that this guy had an eye for arresting compositions and a feverish sense of the outré and uncanny.
But back to the naked and the dead: Johansson is an emotional blank as an alien on the prowl for earthmen, although Mars Needs Women this isn’t. In fact, the film never fully acknowledges that her impassively eroticized, nameless character is strictly out-of-this-world (other than in the obvious, male-gaze way) at all. Co-written by the director and Walter Campbell, the script barely lets the audience in on anything, much less motives and meanings, which (un)naturally comprises at least half the shuddersome fun. Johansson’s sexy beast is very much the archetypal other, a heady and deadly brew of voluptuous, fuck-me-booted come-hithers and vacant unknowability. In a way, this role mirrors her breathtaking vocal performance in Spike Jonze’s Her, another recent film that played with our innermost desires and uppermost fears regarding an altogether different alien species: technology. Under the Skin can be viewed on many levels, not the least of which is as though one were experiencing our world from the viewpoint of the thing.
What makes Under the Skin such a mind-blower has everything to do with Johansson’s chillingly unempathetic turn as the, well, whatever she is, coupled with cinematographer Daniel Landin’s disorienting, hallucinogenic visuals. Johnnie Burn’s sound design – one jagged, anxious frisson stretched to the point of collapse – is in itself well worthy of an Oscar nod. Add to that the sublime, unsettling score by avant-weird composer Mica Levi (aka Micachu) and some startling visuals work from UK effects house One of Us (Cloud Atlas, The Tree of Life) and you have a cinematic happening near-guaranteed to get under your skin and into your head for far longer than is comfortable. Like staring into the mirror while on a bad trip, you don’t so much watch this film as this film watches you.