Scarlett Johansson is naked in Under the Skin. Remarkably, she’s never done that before in a movie. Yet there’s more to it than that, as there usually is with her. Sex appeal has been a central part of Johansson’s stardom ever since she came to prominence 10 years ago in Lost in Translation, but rather than rest on that and settle for, say, Jessica Alba’s career, she has assiduously sought out roles that have been about something else. Thus: the spurned mistress in Match Point, the assassin trying to go straight in the Marvel Comics movies, the disembodied software system in Her. Now in this science-fiction film, she moves her sexuality to center stage, hence the full-frontal nudity. The star casts a coldly analytical eye on her body and the effects it has on people, and this is what makes this icy and remote film so arresting.
Her character, like all the others in this film, has no name. She is an alien being who roams the streets of Glasgow and the surrounding towns in a white unmarked van, her stony gaze falling on young men walking alone who aren’t overly well-dressed and might need a ride. When she finds a man who won’t be missed, she entices him sexually into a, uh, lair? Room? Parallel dimension? And then, for lack of a better word, consumes him.
Sporting a black shaggy bob, fashionably beat-up jeans, and a fake fur coat over a hot pink top, Johansson moves stiffly and robotically through spectacular vistas of the Scottish countryside. This befits a character who is highly sexual and yet completely disengaged from her sexuality, treating it purely as a means to an end. When she’s chatting up men, we see Johansson flashing her familiar ingratiating, apple-cheeked smile (along with a less familiar English accent), but as soon as she’s alone, her face reverts to an impassive mask.
This is only the third film by the wildly talented but ferociously enigmatic British director Jonathan Glazer, who followed his blazing 2001 debut Sexy Beast with the disappointing 2004 film Birth. The scenes with the alien in the wild are filmed with a you-are-there realism. They come by that honestly, as the filmmakers dropped Johansson in full costume into Glasgow locations and had her interact with the locals, who were unaware at the time that they were being filmed or that they were talking to one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. By contrast, the scenes where the entity entraps the men are filmed on what is clearly a bare black soundstage. We don’t find out until midway through exactly what happens to the victims, but when we do, it’s the movie’s one moment of genuine horror.
In adapting Michel Faber’s novel, Glazer and his co-writer Walter Campbell have pared away much of the detail about what the outsider is doing, with dialogue kept to the barest minimum. The resulting aura of mystery leads to provocative questions about this implacable creature and what exactly she’s after. Yet the filmmakers might have gone a bit too far in that direction. Specifically, we could use more information about the character’s gradual switch from pitiless killer to confused empathizer with humans. It appears to revolve around her encounter with a hitchhiker with a deformed face, but Glazer could have accomplished so much just by dropping a few more clues about what the extraterrestrial makes of the human race that she’s impersonating.
This is especially true of a late encounter with a man who takes her in simply out of kindness toward a girl who looks lost and frightened. Under the Skin will appeal to fans of inscrutable experimental science-fiction like Upstream Color and Beyond the Black Rainbow, but it turns out to mirror another Johansson movie, Don Jon. Both this and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s sex comedy are about people who don’t know how to function in the world other than by seduction, until they’re given a glimpse of other means of existence.
The climactic sequence neatly acknowledges how the same looks that draw male victims toward the visitor also attract the other predators that this world harbors. Johansson seems to grasp this more firmly than even the filmmakers do, and her performance hints at depths that probably are absent from the script. The alien’s final act makes an indelible image because it represents a primal reckoning between the star and her desirability. There have been sexy movie stars as long as there have been movies, but I can’t remember the last time one owned and disowned her sexiness so comprehensively in a single stroke. What is it like to be Scarlett Johansson? What is it like to be that hot, to be that famous for being hot, and to think deeply about what it all means? Most of us will never know, but this flawed film and the uncanny performance at its heart give us a tantalizing clue.
Under the Skin
Starring Scarlett Johansson. Directed by Jonathan Glazer. Written by Walter Campbell and Jonathan Glazer, based on Michel Faber’s novel. Rated R.