Over a twenty-year career that has included everything from quirky indies and Woody Allen films to big budget studio pictures, actress Scarlett Johansson has forged her own path and chosen projects that showcased the full range of her talents. Just this week, we see her twice on the silver screen as she also shows her action skills in “Captain America: Winter Soldier.” And while “Lost In Translation” marked Johansson’s official arrival as a serious actress, it is quite possible that from here on out audiences will most associate her with “Under The Skin,” an existential science fiction film directed and co-written by Jonathan Glazer.
Based on the novel by Michael Faber and co-written by Walter Campbell, “Under The Skin” stars Johansson as a nameless creature from another planet who has descended to earth – Scotland, to be exact – in voluptuous, naked female form. We first encounter her as she strips the clothing from a dead woman on the side of the road so as to better fit in with the human world. Her mission is rather simple: to feast upon unsuspecting humans. After a ruthless encounter with a Czech tourist that underscores the emotionless nature of her alien character, she drives around the city of Glasgow in a nondescript van and uses her alluring presence and sexy English accent to pick up locals off the street. The first half of the film is composed almost entirely of these driving scenes and Johansson interacting with actual everyday Scots. (The production team used hidden cameras to achieve this highly realistic effect, and it pays off by drawing us into this foreign environment). Upon picking up her victims, she takes them to her secret lair and seduces them into a black liquid pit from which they’ll never escape.
Throughout the first half of the film, we experience this foreign world as she does – through dispassionate alien eyes. But after picking up a physically deformed man, we see Johansson’s character begin to register human emotions for the first time. She asks him questions about his life, taking an interest in him despite his deformity, and the scene has a wonderful genuineness about it. When she lures him back to her lair and into a state of undress, she decides to take pity on him – an indication of her human evolution. From here, the film becomes more of an existential character study of Johansson’s transformation from alien to female, all while she becomes more acquainted with the complicated nature of human relationships.
Because the film doesn’t follow a traditional narrative structure, it succeeds in being highly unpredictable, which especially works to its benefit in the final act. The first half is a little repetitive considering all the scenes of Johansson picking up men in her van, but the single-mindedness of the story, paired with the beautifully haunting cinematography by Daniel Landin, has a way of sucking the viewer into this otherworldly setting. Once her human emotions and self-awareness are awakened, we feel the story marching toward a tragic conclusion, and it’s a testament to Johansson’s performance that she’s able to convey this with body language and pared-down dialogue. This harrowing vibe is also aided by the unforgettable, string-heavy score composed by Mica Levi, which is reminiscent of Jonny Greenwood’s work on “There Will Be Blood” and is as much a character in the movie as Johansson or the Glasgow setting.
This film marks director and co-writer Jonathan Glazer’s third feature after 2000’s “Sexy Beast” and 2004’s “Birth.” In those previous films, he breathed new life into two familiar genres: the British gangster film and the ghost story; and it seems he had similar aims with this picture. But even though he proved himself to be a visionary with his first two films, there is nothing that obviously stands out about them that would anticipate what he achieves with “Under The Skin.” Whereas most extraterrestrial-related science fiction films highlight the alien backstory and the characteristics that define their uniqueness, Glazer goes the opposite way, aligning the viewer with the alien’s perspective, which in turn makes the humans come off as the outsiders. Also, by focusing so stringently on the alien’s perspective, it adds an emotional truth to the proceedings – much more so than, say, an elaborate spaceship or an invented language.
That being said, Glazer’s obsession with character perspective is also detrimental to the overall film. To be so fully immersed in such a foreign world and point of view is enjoyable, but the lack of plot, character motivation and the defiantly elliptical storyline are ultimately unrewarding.
“Under The Skin” is best suited to sci-fi fans and independent filmgoers looking for a unique experience at the cinema. It will probably leave you wanting more, especially for those who are accustomed to the traditional narrative structure of Hollywood films, but it’s a strangely poetic film that definitely stands out among the pack.
By Lucas Mirabella
Rated R for nudity, sexual content, violence and language.