Under the Skin is fated to be a divisive film. On the one hand, it's a strange, stark creation, wedded to a deliberately off-putting aesthetic and plotless enough to inspire walkouts. On the other hand, it features Scarlett Johansson naked.
Moviegoers who come for the latter spectacle, expecting it to appear in the context of a traditional science fiction film, may not be so happy with the former one. As he did with Birth (2004), director Jonathan Glazer has made a visually striking film with a mood that infiltrates you, for better or worse. Rarely has a title described a movie's effect better.
The protagonist of Michel Faber's novel Under the Skin (2000) is a young woman who spends her days driving the highways of Scotland in search of strapping male hitchhikers. Who she is, what she is, and what she intends to do with her prey are revelations that emerge with chilling slowness from the narrative, which is less science fiction than a Kafkaesque study in alienation and empathy. It's the sort of story that gives you nightmares before the bad stuff starts happening, because something feels indefinably wrong.
It's also the sort of story that's very hard to tell on film, because it depends so strongly on our sharing the protagonist's fractured, foreign perspective. Glazer has addressed this problem by ditching almost all of Faber's plot and instead devising visual and aural ways to convey the experience of a stranger in a strange land.
As Johansson's character prowls Scotland in a white van, we see the inhabitants from her perspective — their motions antlike, their voices indistinguishable. Random urban shapes and sounds emerge with frightening acuity, suggesting a world she can't process. The mundane lurches toward her (and us) like something in a horror flick, while the scene that contains the most properly horrifying events is captured in affectless long shots, evoking a viewpoint that's both alien and alienated.
Using hidden cameras, Glazer filmed spontaneous interactions between the glammed-up movie star and the thickly accented locals. When she invites men into her van and asks them probing questions about who might miss them if they disappeared, the resulting awkwardness feels creepily genuine. And when a few unwary lads (played by actors) follow her back to her lair, the movie goes to David Lynch places against the background of Mica Levi's shrieking, dissonant score.
It's a rigorously realized cinematic experience like no other, defying the audience's expectations of what's supposed to happen when a star bares all on film. (Let's just say the recipients of the character's attentions fail to get what they're expecting.) Yet, when it comes to showing the heroine's transformation in response to her environment, Glazer's method falls short.
Virtually the only lines Johansson speaks are the seductive scripts her character has memorized; unlike Faber's heroine, she has no interactions with her own kind that might reveal how she feels about her bizarre task. As a result, when she begins to empathize with human beings and to act on that empathy, the ensuing events feel more like a series of poorly motivated actions than an organic character progression. Glazer struggles to add plot to his formula within the confines of his languid, almost underwater pacing, and some scenes fall flat as a result.
No one should go to Under the Skin expecting an arty version of Species. What we see on-screen is more often disturbing than titillating, and there's virtually no overt violence or gore. While tossing out the novel's social commentary, Glazer captures its motifs in isolated images of eerie beauty. Yet that very beauty — the aestheticization of disconnection — may keep the film from getting as far under your skin as it really should.