Under the Skin

A beautiful, mysterious woman relentlessly drives the roads and highways of Scotland. Laura (Scarlett Johansson) picks up hitchhikers, always searching for men who will not be missed if they are never seen again. What is she doing with the men she takes away? Whatt does she want? These questions—as well as more philosophical queries—are brilliantly spun together in the hypnotic new movie Under the Skin.

The potentially lurid science fiction plot of an alien seductress in search of victims may conjure memories of trashy flicks like Species (1995), especially when the role is played by an actress who keeps getting named “the sexiest woman alive” by all kinds of publications. However, in the hands of filmmaker Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast, Birth) it becomes a visually dazzling work that has drawn comparisons to the films of David Lynch and Stanly Kubrick.

Under the Skin is based on Michel Faber’s novel of the same name, but this is a rare example of a cinematic adaptation improving on the original. Glazer strips out all of the novel’s prosaic explanations and background, instead plunging viewers directly into Laura’s consciousness as she experiences the “alien” world of Earth and the strange creatures known as “humans.” Sharing Laura’s perspective forces viewers to see through new eyes the utter strangeness of the world we take for granted.

Although she is repulsed by the casual violence and desolation she finds on Earth, Laura becomes increasingly obsessed by the human need for emotional and physical contact. Eventually she must choose whether or not to risk her own existence by giving in to her growing need to be close to another being.

Scarlett Johansson gives a performance of extraordinary subtlety, beautifully conveying the conflicting feelings of alienation, confusion and longing that drive this woman who fell to Earth. Johansson’s largely wordless turn as Laura is a perfect corollary to her purely vocal role as Samantha in Spike Jonze’s luminous Her—Johansson plays a computer operating system who becomes capable of love (released earlier this year).

Both Laura and Samantha are non-humans whose consciousness expands beyond the limitations assigned to them. Particularly with the casting of Johansson, the film can also be seen as a sly commentary on our obsession with certain physical attributes that we view as the embodiment of perfection. Like a movie star, Laura coolly uses her beauty as a tool to complete her mission. She seems genuinely unsettled by the power her skin-deep looks have on men, which becomes particularly haunting when viewers finally discover what truly is under the skin.

In a manner reminiscent of the novels of J.G. Ballard, Under the Skin is a work of existential science fiction that eschews outer space and instead explores the far stranger worlds of inner space. Glazer takes viewers on an unforgettably dazzling journey where true emotion offers the only warm beacon on a cold world like Earth.

dylan skolnick

Dylan Skolnick lives in the East, but loves a good western. He can be found most days and many evenings at the Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington, where he is co-director (www.cinemaartscentre.org).