In Under the Skin, Scarlett Johansson plays a hawk, and dozens of average men of Glasgow, Scotland play squirrels. Johansson is an unnamed alien going about her job, which is to use her sex appeal to lure men to a secluded place where they are … well, we’re not really sure what happens to them, but it ain’t good. The process that the — not “victims”, “prey” — are subjected to is even more terrifying because of its incomprehensibility.
Filmmaker Jonathon Glazer, a former music video director whose excellent 2000 feature debut Sexy Beast could not be more different from Under the Skin, reportedly worked on this film, based on a science fiction novel by Michel Faber, for 9 years, and it shows. Glazer and cinematographer Daniel Landin have created a work that is more visually stunning than most films with 10 times Under the Skin’s budget. Their meticulous compositions, which use every square inch of screen space, are a good reason to see it in a theater. The first half is a battle between dark and light, chaos and order, noise and information. The wordless beginning, in which Johansson takes the identity of a murdered woman, empties out the trick bag to put the viewer in her head, including sound design that strips the information content from human speech, leaving just the meaningless babble that the alien hears. Her lair is simple and featureless, and when humans are brought into it, they look gangly and alien. But when the humans are seen in their own environment, they fit in seamlessly, and it is Johansson, and thus the audience, who is alien.
In Her, Johansson constructed a compelling character just using her voice. Under the Skin is the opposite: She and Glazer construct a compelling, and yet completely alien, character with just her body. Her sparse line deliveries are flat and detached. She — assuming the aliens have sexes like humans — is a lure who knows just enough about sexuality to get the job done. Late in the film, when she attempts actual sexual intercourse, she is baffled by its mechanics. Johansson is of course beautiful, and frequently in a state of undress, but her body is not exercised to perfection like it is when she plays Black Widow in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Prowling the streets of Glasgow, she looks like a normal woman; only we are aware of the horror that lurks underneath. That inversion of the mundane and the exotic is at the heart of this remarkable film’s success.