Under the Skin
Opens Fri., April 11 at Harvard Exit and Sundance. Rated R. 107 minutes.
Yes, this is the movie where Scarlett Johansson gets naked and—playing an alien huntress cloaked in human skin—lures men to their deaths. Let’s get that out of the way early. Adapting a 2000 novel by Dutch writer Michael Faber (not really a sci-fi guy), Jonathan Glazer dispenses with suspense or context. Instead we have process. Aided by some motorcycle-riding minions, Johansson’s unnamed character functions like part of the same hive-mind. She’s more worker bee than killer, a drone programmed to do one particular thing. This consists of driving around Scotland in a white van, calling out to single men with a posh English accent, then leading them back to her glass-floored abattoir. Her victims follow willingly and seem to die painlessly. (Also naked and erect.) Not only is the eerie, affectless Under the Skin not really sci-fi, it’s not really horror, either.
So what is it then? British director Glazer emerged from commercials and music videos with Sexy Beast (2000), stumbled with Birth (2004), and now follows Faber into what Descartes called the mind/body problem. How can we know what another person is thinking? How can we be certain our own solitary consciousness isn’t unique in a world of replicants placed here to fool us? Because humankind is, if you study our physical form long enough, profoundly odd. As it certainly is to Johansson’s alien, who’s constantly scrutinizing her prey: Is he big enough, meaty enough, a suitable delicacy to be slaughtered and beamed back home? Personality or psychology count for nothing; it’s Descartes in reverse. She cares only for the body, and she’s learned only enough of our language and social protocols to flirt and deceive. In the film’s most chilling scene, she drags a victim to her van, ignoring a crying toddler on the beach. Why not grab this little morsel, too? It’s not big enough, not worth the effort for an apex predator. (She’s no cannibal, however, since she’s not hunting her own kind.)
Eventually Johansson’s visitor goes rogue, apparently having been inspired to empathy—or maybe just bloodless curiosity—after picking up a disfigured hitchhiker. Under the Skin then becomes a dilatory chase movie, without much action, as her brood tries to return her to the nest. Johansson is suitably blank (and gorgeous) for her dispassionate role, with several scenes filmed with ordinary Scots who were unaware of the hidden cameras. Out of her van, she’s disoriented and vulnerable, panicking when a gaggle of women drags her to a disco. (You see terror in her eyes: Am I being led to the slaughterhouse, too?)
Standing in a full-length mirror, studying her nude body, the huntress flexes her knees and joints, bends and stretches her unfamiliar physique (really more of a carapace or housing, like a snail shell for her protean being). What is this strange thing I’m wearing? Is that all it takes to trap these stupid men? Why do they want me so badly? What would food or sex actually feel like? Such questions never would’ve occurred to the illegals in Men in Black or the predator in Predator. Intelligence is here vying with instrumentality. If this alien can question her role, consider her apartness from the hive, might she then have a soul?