Under the Skin (2013) / Sci Fi-Thriller

MPAA Rated: R for graphic nudity, sexual content, some violence and language
Running Time: 108 min.

Cast: Scarlett Johansson
Director: Jonathan Glazer
Screenplay: Jonathan Glazer, Walter Campbell (based on the novel by Michel Faber)

Review published April 24, 2014

Jonathan Glazer (Birth, Sexy Beast) delivers this often mesmerizing, minimalist concept film, Under the Skin, which delves into what it's like to be human from the inside out, and the outside in. Working with co-scripter Walter Campbell, the film is a loose adaptation of a novel by Michel Faber.

Under the Skin starts out without much explanation, just a visual of an orb that looks like something of alien origin that eventually transforms visually into a human eyeball. From there, the rest of the body is formed in what will eventually look like a brunette version of Scarlett Johansson (Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Her). Later, we see her in Scotland, with the aid of an unnamed man riding a motorcycle, stealing the clothing of a deceased woman and putting them on herself. She gets into a van and drives around the bustling streets looking for men without a connection to family or friends to lure, presumably to their demise.

The way the mens' lives end (or do they?) is one of the stunning visuals of the film, whereby a stripping Johansson walks across a sleek black floor, while the men walk sinking down into it as it it were liquid engulfing them seemingly without their knowledge, until they are completely submerged, never to appear above again. What happens afterward is subject to interpretation, as there are many clues but almost no overt explanations for the things that we see the main character do, or even who or what she really is.

Most of the people Johansson encounters are played by non-professional actors, some of whom may not have known exactly what they were getting into when they agreed to a ride from this mysterious woman. It's a guerilla-tinged shoot in the beginning, utilizing hidden cameras at various spots inside of the van, before the men are eventually told what's going on and what they'll be asked to do, and surprisingly a few take them up on their offer.

Johansson plays her character as icy and subdued, eventually becoming confused as to who or what she is after she has taken on a human form for long enough that she begins to adapt in ways that don't seem to be part of her overall mission. Though she plays her part without much emotion, and she's essentially not much more than a serial killer, she lends her role a certain sympathy as a predator that she has little discernment for the kinds of things she is doing.

Some have made some comparisons to the work of Stanley Kubrick or Nicolas Roeg, but while there are certain visual nods here and there, I think expectations should be tempered that Under the Skin is on the level of, say, 2001: A Space Odyssey or The Man Who Fell to Earth in either scope or conceptual execution. It does contain a Kubrick-esque abstract and unsettling electronic score from Mica Levi, mixing ambient sounds with storytelling elements, such as the implication of Johansson's "alien" practicing human speech as she descends toward Earth.

Although it is a thriller, a science fiction film, and a horror story all rolled up into one, potential viewers would be well advised to temper expectations for an exciting plotline or riveting action montages. Glazer's approach is slow and contemplative, and highly experimental, allowing the mood of the piece to not only absorb, but envelop you, much in the same way that the blackness envelops our protagonist's unwitting victims to their unsettling doom.

Qwipster's rating:

2014 Vince Leo