The film starts with jittery, unnerving violin music, paired with electronically distorted vocal sounds and high-contrast, mechanized and organic imagery. As unidentifiable lights and shapes move about, the camera finally settles on an extreme close-up of an eyeball. It’s a creepy, bizarre introduction that would be a sensational setup for a horror movie. Unexpectedly, “Under the Skin” doesn’t easily fit into that broad of a genre description.
The story begins with a man on a motorcycle, who stops on the side of the road, wanders down an embankment and reappears moments later, carrying a woman’s body over his shoulder. He places the lifeless figure into the back of a nearby van, where a naked adult female strips off the corpse’s clothing and dresses herself. She then drives the vehicle to a mall.
From here, the unnamed woman (Scarlett Johansson) sets about observing things, from clothing to makeup to human interactions and movements. She proceeds to drive through the motorways of Scotland, asking various lone men for directions, and even giving a few a lift – but she’s not interested in finding a particular building or road. Instead, she’s searching for the right victim. She eventually lures a young man back to an isolated, dilapidated structure; inside, just up a curving flight of stairs, she hypnotizes him into wading across an inky black, reflective pool of liquid, which she can walk upon as he sinks into a fixed position, as if stuck in murky gelatin.
The sensibility never becomes much clearer. From eerily appearing on a beach to witness a little girl attempt to save her dog, to a crowded rave, to a wordless meeting with an alien accomplice, motives are elusive (save for a rather disturbing innards-harvesting sequence) and actions are evidently allusions to a larger picture of metaphorical commentary. While there are moments of tension, created primarily from lengthy gazing on empty spaces or inactivity, nerve-wrackingly waiting for something scary to occur or pop into frame, the process is entirely too slow. If the extraterrestrial woman’s intentions are to judge humanity, like Gort from “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” or a subtle invasion, as seen in “They Live,” or a hostile takeover, like the pods from “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” or hybrid repopulation, like Sil from “Species,” the audience is never specifically informed. When a gang of teenagers attacks her parked van, the possibilities for a sinister reaction begin to foment – but her response is to simply drive away. Many of the events in “Under the Skin” maneuver in that same, promising but ultimately uneventful manner.
Begging for an exegesis through allusive illustrations of beauty, ugliness, kindness, discomfort, and the indiscriminating viewpoint of otherworldly perception, the film’s curiosities lose out to the weird imperceptibleness of characters and plot. Unhurried focus on reflections, facial features, and surroundings drag out the purpose, even while intriguing hints of rebellion, mastering emotions, sympathy to humankind, and the recognition of right and wrong, edge their way into the sparse script. If the whole ordeal is a complex allegory, writer/director Jonathan Glazer (working from a lauded novel by Michel Faber) has taken the “2001: A Space Odyssey” route, opting for puzzlement and head-scratching instead of thrills and adventure. Because of its beguilingly ambiguous nature, “Under the Skin” will likely only be remembered as a strange science-fiction experiment or an opportunity for gratuitous Scarlett Johansson nudity.
– The Massie Twins