Scarlett Johansson is a ruthless, dispassionate, oft-naked alien hunting down Scottish hitchhikers in Under the Skin, a low-speed sci-fi drama opening this Friday at the Cedar Lee Theatre. Director Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast, Birth) adapted the film from a novel of the same name by Michael Faber, and it's a weird one.
Until a certain unforgettable moment in the film, I actually had no idea that Johansson's character, who remains nameless, was an alien. And this made things considerably more confusing. For the most part, she's just driving around Glasgow in a white rapist van, sizing up men and then luring them back to one or more derelict lairs, whereupon the men are seduced and never heard from again.
Knowing very little about what I was getting into, I wasn't sure if the systematic scenes of seduction were intended to be symbolic — the men, disrobing as they march toward Johansson, sink into a pitch-black room's glossy surface and then are totally subsumed within a translucent ooze — or if they were actually happening. But I submit that these scenes are mesmerizing to watch even if you don't fully understand what's going on.
Which should be the takeaway overall: Under the Skin's bizarre developments resist easy interpretation. Who are these forbidding men on motorcycles collecting bodies? What is this woman's ultimate mission? Its strangeness is unrelenting, and grippingly so.
As is Johansson's transformation. By the film's second half, after witnessing a horrific drama unfold on a beach and then seducing a hugely disfigured man, she seems to recognize and categorize humanity. She tastes chocolate cake, experiences the kindness of a man, intuits the significance of a crying baby, observes with great interest the capabilities of her host's body. And by film's end, the predator-prey dynamic becomes much more earthly, as does Johansson herself.
Though Under the Skin isn't what you'd call "fun for the whole family," its haunting score, chilling visuals, and various depictions of and contemplations on "otherness" demonstrate how movies can be successful for many more reasons than one. The mood and message here are equally worthy of coffee/beer talk after the flick.