Why are genre films so important? Because they feature exciting stylistic talent. Case in point: Jonathan Glazer’s mesmerizing Under the Skin. Its high concept is one of the oldest science-fiction plotlines in the movies: A strange visitor from outer space comes to Earth and molests humans. But what British writer-director Glazer and his crew do with the basic material make it one of the most intriguing screen entertainments of the year so far — an unnerving, disturbing, utterly disorienting encounter with something wholly other.
Having already landed on our globe before the action starts, the nameless extraterrestrial (played by Scarlett Johansson), with the help a motorcycle-riding assistant, borrows literally everything — skin, clothes, brunette wig, inappropriate high-heeled boots — from a recently deceased Earthling and begins trolling the rough neighborhoods of Glasgow, Scotland in a white van, picking up men on the street seemingly randomly. Notably, though, she never hits on women, and always asks questions to assure herself the men are unattached before consummating the seduction.
When they arrive at her grim, crumbling house and step through the door, expecting hot sex with this exotic non-local, the men suddenly find themselves in a black, boundless, completely silent room. But they strip off their clothes anyway, because they’re supposed to, and follow the woman’s footsteps until they’re swallowed up in a still black pool of liquid, from which they never emerge. Then the alien moves on to her — its? — next victim.
We’ve seen movies about ice-cold predators, marauding space aliens, and femmes fatales before, but here the filmmakers create a setting that’s so completely foreign that everything in it seems new and threatening. That’s rare in any type of pop entertainment, even in genres that routinely strive for bizarre novelties, like horror and crime shockers. Most lapse into cliché. London native Glazer, who made the Nicole Kidman psychological chiller Birth and the cockneys-in-Spain gangster pic Sexy Beast, shrouds this alien invasion story — loosely adapted by writer Walter Campbell and the director, from Michel Faber’s novel — in a hushed, apprehensive cocoon of dulled sensations and delayed reactions.
That is, we experience Earth through the alien’s eyes and ears. Instead of the cacophony of voices and ambient sounds we recognize as our world, the “female” predator’s frightening encounters take place at a dreamlike remove — thanks in large part to Daniel Landin’s cinematography, Chris Oddy’s production design, Johnnie Burn’s sound design, and especially the eerie, scratchy, screechy musical score by composer Mica Levi. Never in film have the Scottish Highlands seemed quite so ominous, not even for Danny Boyle or Alfred Hitchcock.
None of this would coalesce, however, without the leading lady’s performance. Johansson already possesses the coolness, and Glazer has her channel that glamorous menace into realms seldom approached in her previous roles. Johansson’s metallic sexiness gets taken to its logical, lethal extreme as she cruises Glasgie’s dreary clubs and parking lots for fresh meat. Some critics have spied social commentary in the alien’s depredations, but we prefer to view her hunting trips on their own terms as part of the alien’s unspoken (everything is unspoken) mission. (Glazer reportedly filmed Johansson’s white van pick-up scenes on location with a hidden camera and only informed the unwitting subjects after he’d gotten the shot.)
In one particular sequence, the Johansson character visits a rocky beach with wildly crashing surf, and in the midst of vamping on a solitary Czech tourist, witnesses a profoundly dramatic scene involving a dog swept offshore, the dog’s owner caught in the surf trying to save her pet, the woman’s husband attempting to save his wife from drowning, the Czech tourist swimming out to save the husband, and the couple’s crying baby left behind on the sand, in the path of the rising tide — all this without a word of audible dialogue. The denouement of this little vignette evokes the most pathetic/horrifying moments from Bram Stoker, Stephen King, and Michael Haneke. Under the Skin will revisit you in the wee hours of the morning.