‘Under the Skin’ Review: A Is for ‘Alien’ and ‘Arthouse’ in This Oblique Scarlett Johansson Puzzler

The director of “Birth” and “Sexy Beast” returns after a decade-long absence with an enigmatic film that will entrance some and baffle many

Last Updated: August 4, 2014 @ 10:34 AM

It’s currently a given that Stanley Kubrick‘s “2001: A Space Odyssey” is a classic, and generations of critics and film students have collectively deduced its storyline over the years. But if you go back and read reviews and commentary from 1968, there was a whole lot of “What the hell was THAT?” going around.

Expect a similar amount of confoundedness over “Under the Skin,” the first film from writer-director Jonathan Glazer (“Birth,” “Sexy Beast”) in a decade. Offering little dialogue and even less in the way of explanation, this is a movie that’s going to engender enthusiasm from certain quarters and head scratching from others.

Watch video: Scarlett Johansson Gets Undressed in ‘Under the Skin’ Trailer (Video)

I feel secure in proclaiming its artistry but less so about my interpretation of what actually happens in this movie. Here’s the plot of “Under the Skin” as I understood it, but don’t quote me — and if you’re sensitive about spoilers, skip the next five paragraphs:

The film opens with shots of space, and stars forming circles and ellipses and eclipses. The soundtrack is a frenzied soundscape of stringed instruments, and we eventually hear Scarlett Johansson forming sounds and reading alphabetical lists of words, like someone  learning a language, and those circles become what appears to be a human eye.

under-the-skin-UTS_Still_2_hi-res_rgbA mysterious man on a motorcycle (Jeremy McWilliams — at least I think so, since there are no character names in the credits and the actors are listed in the order in which they appear) recovers what appears to be a hooker’s dead body at the side of the road and puts it in a van. In a mysterious room, an alien (Johansson) strips the clothes off the other woman and puts them on. The alien goes to a department store and buys makeup and a fur coat in order to become more attractive.

She begins driving around in a van, looking for solitary men. Others, she picks up in a nightclub. The men wind up with her in dark rooms where they essentially sink into the floor and drown as they follow a disrobing Johansson to their doom.

One night, she picks up a lonely young man with facial disfigurement, perhaps from Proteus syndrome. She seduces him, but appears to have more compassion for him than for her previous victims. He does not die but instead escapes into a field naked, where the man on the motorcycle apprehends him and throws him in the trunk of a car.

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The alien, meanwhile, winds up in a small Scottish town, apparently unable to speak or remember her mission or consume food. (Is she being punished for going off-mission? Or does she begin dying the moment she stops hunting down sustenance?) A man gives her his coat and tries to help her out, but eventually a violent encounter with another man brings her true nature to light.

Again, this just my interpretation — apart from the alien’s conversation with the final hitchhiker, there are only snatches of dialogue here and there, and pretty much no exposition or detail provided in Glazer and Walter Campbell‘s adaptation of the novel by Michel Faber.

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Still, if you’re willing to let yourself go with the movie, to follow it where it wants to take you and to fill in the blanks on your own, Glazer creates a hypnotic atmosphere. Composer Mica Levi and sound designer Johnnie Burn put in overtime on this one; it’s a valid complaint that most mainstream movies are wall-to-wall music and explosions, but here’s an example of using sound to challenge and disconcert an audience rather than lulling and entertaining them.

Johansson, straying about as far from “Avengers” territory as possible, provides an extraordinary window into an alien being; through her eyes, we see and hear the world as someone not from here would. Her performance is the payoff that makes Glazer’s enigmatic storytelling choices so effective.

Glazer and Kidman turned a two-minute close-up of the actress’ face in “Birth” into a captivating screen moment I can still remember vividly ten years later, and here he’s using dissonance and elliptical narrative in way that’s utterly entrancing.

The “I heard Scarlett Johansson gets naked in this” crowd will find themselves bored and annoyed, but if you’ve got the patience and the enthusiasm for an arthouse movie that veers close to experimental territory, you may find yourself completely sucked in. It’s a challenging sit, admittedly, but “Under the Skin” engrossed me throughout.

As to whether or not I got the plot right — check back with me after I’ve read the book and then seen the film three or four more times. After all, people are still arguing about the meaning of that hotel room at the end of “2001.”