Body Snatcher: Under the Skin

03/26/2014 4:00 AM |

Under the Skin
Directed by Jonathan Glazer

The alien invaders in this midnight-movie transmission are more like a couple of local poachers: a being disguised as a human bombshell (Scarlett Johansson), overseen by a shadowy figure in motocross regalia, materializes on the outskirts of Glasgow, getting behind the wheel of a van to seduce solitary males from the side of the road. She leads them all to an abandoned house and into a black pool from whence they’ll never return. (In the movie’s most eye-popping sequence, director Glazer shows us just what goes on down there: the breaking down of the masculine physique, popping, shriveling, and deflating like a balloon in the fluid suspension.) Eventually, our extraterrestrial protagonist betrays a measure of feeling for a deformed man plucked from the highway’s shoulder, deepening the inquiry into the human body, hardwired not merely as a seduction tool but also as an empathic interface.

As Johansson’s “character” apparently abandons her mission and flees to the Highlands, the film disappointingly backtracks on its initial atmosphere of total menace, but former music-video ace Glazer seems more in control of the proceedings here than he did in his previous two features, Sexy Beast and Birth (see p. 26)—both of which were easier to watch but harder to think through. Many of Under the Skin’s roadside flirtations were reportedly improvised, with Johansson herself snaring real unsuspecting passersby into suggestive conversation: as a result, somewhat unexpectedly, the film is not most squirm-inducing as annihilative-
takeover horror but rather as a record of nervous gestures, in which strangers fidget toward doomed intimacy. During these interactions, Johansson, doing something more fraught than the standard-issue femme-fatale act, manages to seem both engaged and disengaged, participant
and orchestrator.

Much more so than either Sexy Beast or Birth, Under the Skin looks like one of the MTV2 staples that Glazer devised in the mid-90s: in the protagonist’s canvassing of the sidewalks from a motor-vehicle vantage, there’s more than a hint of the drive-by grubbiness of “Karma Police” and UNKLE’s “Rabbit in Your Headlights,” in which a babbling Denis Lavant gets clipped again and again by passing cars; likewise, it’s not surprising that the obsidian void where Johansson lures her captive prey was conceived by the man who dreamed up the scrolling space-station bay of Jamiroquai’s “Virtual Insanity.” In Under the Skin, we see the earth made unearthly, the human body made lurchingly strange—and an accomplished stylist continuing to put it together as a filmmaker

Opens April 4