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The Naked Experience of 'Under the Skin'

This is alien noir at its finest.

(A24)
(A24)

Long story short: Like his other work, Jonathan Glazer's latest is visually ambitious, slow burning, and totally magnificently alien.

Under the Skin will remind you of: Species, Dark City, The Terminator, Her, Fire in the Sky, There Will be Blood, Fallen Angels, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (US)

Review: This is the first science fiction film I've looked forward to in a long time. It's part of that great tradition of alien noirs that began with Kubrick and includes movies like Alien and Dark City. But this one is especially notable for two reasons: It's directed by Jonathan Glazer and it stars Scarlett Johansson in her first nude role. In other words, art and sex.

Glazer is a genuine visionary and Under the Skin deserves the best kind of compliment: It will be remembered. And Scarlett, who reportedly once had a no-nudity clause in her contract, does what Natasha Henstridge did in Species years back. She empties herself for a largely clothes-less role as an alien femme fatale.

Johansson is first heard, not seen, in Under the Skin. The chirpy little bird from Spike Jonze's Her replaced here by an exacting, soulless student enunciating "N" sounds off in the distance. The voice is metallic and unlike anything of this world. It is terrifying. 

Then we see her (Johansson). Wearing nothing, she undresses the earthling whose identity she's copied. Like the naked alien movies of the past—the Terminators, Lifeforces, and Species—the nudity is essential to the idea the foreign element doesn't understand the concept to begin with. As these aliens spend time with humans, they learn our ways. 

The Naked Experience of 'Under the Skin'
(A24)

The nudity is essential to the character but it, like the rest of the film, is also beautifully photographed by Daniel Landin. Glazer sets the undressing scene in an empty white room like The Matrix. The camera floats to the side of the actors so the perspective seems skewed. It's a powerful portrait. The light silhouettes Johansson's every curve as she coldly goes about her business. The mood haunts and is enhanced by Mica Levi's tonal score. And it's freakishly sexual, obviously, thanks to Johansson. 

On Earth, a biker speeds around the streets of Scotland. He's come with the alien girl as some kind of helper. The two will lure, kidnap, and pack for shipping as many young human males as they can. In Michael Faber's novel of the same name, "Laura" captures these men to send home for feasting. Walter Campbell's script (based on the book) doesn't spell things out the same way, but there's a particularly violent end for one man that suggests the novel's horrifying revelations.

Then Under the Skin does something surprising: It binds us to Johansson's creeper. She drives a windowless white van (serial killer style) and the camera takes over from her point of view. A montage of men walk by. Which one will she choose? An older one perhaps? No. A family man? She asks one for directions. Johansson slips easily into the lost tourist role. With a British accent, she eyeballs the men and smiles slightly, inviting them for a ride. One jumps in, but is released. Another comes home. The young man with a cap follows her into the pitch black house. The alien girl slides her shirt off, beckons for the man to follow and one by one they do, erect, into the darkness. 

This is a film of endless possibilities, but the details may be the best way to prove Under the Skin's greatness. Unlike most every other alien movie, the monster possesses no discernible physical advantage. Her beauty is her lone weapon and it's human. That means she's vulnerable, and the skin she's chosen has its disadvantages too. So on a human level she's brave. On another human level and a very cinematic one, the idea of a woman in a position of power over men remains as compelling as ever. But she's somehow still the underdog, so you root for her. 

For Glazer, Under the Skin marks a giant leap forward. He hasn't made a feature in ten years, but his latest is worth the wait. Each frame fits snugly with the next and the director empties the playbook to separate his movie from all those other ones of the past. More than anything else, Under the Skin is an experience. It's the most visionary and beautiful film so far this year, and I'm not even counting naked Scarlett.

View Scarlett Johansson Pictures »
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