Darkness, underscored by violins imitating a busy beehive. A flash of circular light that clarifies into a blinking eye. Fragments of familiar words in a woman’s voice, as if she were learning a new language. One female figure stripping another of her clothes and putting them on. An alien entity has come to Earth (Scotland, to be exact), called herself Laura and assumed the most beguiling of human forms: Scarlett Johansson’s.
The first minutes of Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin raise the promise of an artful thriller, of science fiction with a psychological undertone: psy-fi. Glazer’s and Walter Campbell’s script, loosely based on the Michael Faber novel, focuses on an extraterrestrial whose mission is to kill male humans and harvest their meat, a culinary delicacy on her planet. Glazer, a director of commercials and music videos who made his feature debut in 2003 with the rambunctious crime saga Sexy Beast, proved with his second film, Birth, that he can hook moviegoers with an opening scene of mysterious wonder; it displays a man’s death and possible rebirth in one complex shot. His opening for Under the Skin, nine years later, reveals another alien takeover: instead of a boy occupying a man’s body, the vandal is a creature in a woman’s skin — a seductress with a Scarlett litter and a homicidal intent. And she’s naked.
Yep. The lurid wish of many a fanboy, not to mention the fiction of Internet photoshopping, comes true, as one of the world’s most desirable women gets nude. Who wants to see Under the Skin?
In fairness, ScarJo deserves credit for entrusting herself to a risky project, in a role that couldn’t be further from the one she plays in her other movie this weekend: Natasha Romanoff, the pert Avenger in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Johansson’s Laura character is actually closer to that of the sexual adventuress in the third of the week’s new releases, Lars von Trier’s Nymph()maniac Vol. 2; both women run through countless male partners, devouring them in one fashion or another, without noticeable pleasure. Laura also has a screen sister in the Operating System to which Johansson lent her sultry voice in Spike Jonze’s her. Again, she seems too perfect to be human. The difference: this time, Her is an It — a serial killer. (Or Siri, a killer.)
Images of Laura undressing, to lure her victims into a fatal pool of ooze, are murky and torpid. She’s a beast but not sexy, more a robot with a pale, flesh-like exoskeleton. There’s nothing wrong with that: Johansson and the movie needn’t feed any viewer’s lurid fantasies. But the alien’s lack of affect spreads to the rest of the film. If Siri was a personality without a body, Laura is just the reverse: dead alien walking.
She drives a van through the dismal Scots highlands, offering rides to men. Most of them — including one whose face is mottled by neurofibromatosis (the Elephant Man disease) — seem friendly enough to be spared, but not personable enough to hold the viewer’s attention. And though the noncommittal tone can heighten certain shocks, as on a beach where most members of a family die violently, Under the Skin falls in love with its bleak monotony. It is a melodrama with all the thrills surgically excised.
The movie proves its avant-garde bona fides in two ways. One is the score by Mica Levi, of the band Micachu & The Shapes. At first the music mesmerizes, as its drone accompanies the alien’s first words (which Johansson recorded before filming, as she practiced the English accent she employs here). But it soon turns repetitious: three ascending notes, familiar from old sci-fi movies, and played on an instrument that sounds like a theremin with a chest cold.
The other is Glazer’s decision to film on the fly, with natural lighting and hidden cameras, in the fashion of von Trier’s Dogme precepts. Johansson went more or less incognito, deglamorized to the max, and the men she picked up were not actors but ordinary blokes who learned only later that they were in a movie. They signed releases after consenting to what they had to perform. (“I hereby agree to get naked with Scarlett Johansson…”)
If Glazer hoped that his choice of restrictions would create a sense of dangerous spontaneity, he was mistaken. Under the Skin is handsome, in a dour way, but inert — a cunning experiment that died in the shooting or on the editing table. You’ll want to get the DVD, though, and not just for its study of Scarlett. Odds are that the Making-Of documentary will be far stranger and more fascinating than the movie that was made.