Aggressively arty, metaphorically fertile, and stripped of clutter, Under the Skin is an unclassifiable head-trip with midnight movie sensibilities; a deliberately oblique piece of work that prizes rhythms and textures above hows and whys; and an icy parable of love, sex, loneliness, and the all-consuming power of lust. Hypnotic, impenetrable, brave, and experimental, it’s a predatorily brainy fantasy film and an eerie metaphor for the act of becoming human.
In Scotland, an alien takes the body of an attractive young woman (Scarlett Johansson, Her), luring victims into a trap and then liquifying and harvesting their flesh. When she seduces a man with facial neurofibromatosis disfigurement, she feels pity and allows him to escape, reaping the fury of her alien motorcyclist supervisor. Troubled by her encounter, the alien unsuccessfully attempts to adopt human behaviour. Fleeing into a forest to find shelter in a remote cabin, she wakes to find a commercial logger trying to rape her. After she extricates herself from her skin, the logger douses her in gasoline and burns her alive.
As opaque as Upstream Color and almost as ambitious as Holy Motors, Under the Skin is one of the most memorable projects in months. Writer-director Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast, Birth) is no slouch: through visual and aural enticement, he articulates the unconscious power of our death drive. With long, quiet takes, he observes Johansson wordlessly taking in the world around her and infuses the everyday world with an overshadowing sense of doom.
The film owes much to Johansson’s intense commitment to a strangely erotic and unnerving performance unlike anything she has done before. Johansson is perfectly cast, able to shift from blank alien mode to kittenish seduction, as capable of insect-like coldness as tender frailty. It reminds one of Jeff Goldblum’s landmark efforts in David Cronenberg’s 1986 update of The Fly.
Coupled with cinematographer Daniel Landin’s disorienting, hallucinatory visuals and first-time feature film composer Mica Levi’s remarkable musical score, Under the Skin is fresh and unpredictable, sinister and fascinating, a deeply mysterious and creepy noir that imprints itself on your memory.
A sensory experience that often astounds, a storytelling experience that often frustrates, Under the Skin unspools its secrets in supple ribbons. It requires that the viewer remain in a meditative mood for more than 90 minutes. It’s as existential as a sci-fi/horror film can possible be, yet that feels like genesis – of fable, moviemaking, performance – with all the ambiguity and excitement that implies.
Easily attacked as something that is more pictorially arresting than intellectually coherent, or one that hides its meaninglessness rather than its meanings, Under the Skin is odd and sexy, troubling and touching, dull and haunting, exasperating and mesmerizing. The narrative does get repetitive, and it’s ultimately too aimlessly weird to be fully satisfying. It’s also downright inaccessible and virtually indecipherable.
But as narcotizing as it is, Under the Skin operates on a subconscious level, and casts an otherworldly spell. There’s no doubting Glazer’s boundless creative flair, and there’s something malignant in the way his film holds attention, quashing the urge to walk out. It’s so rich with menacing atmosphere that an audience could probably tune out the narrative and still get on the proper wavelength. The surface itself holds you in a dark trance.
The climactic image challenges our conventional notions of identity and lets us reflect on the possibility that every being in the universe is an alien in disguise. If it isn’t as thrilling or satiating as one wishes, it delivers on its promise anyway: Under the Skin is exactly where it gets.