“Under the Skin” tells the story of an alien who takes the female form of Scarlett Johansson and drives through Scotland in a van, seducing lonely hitchhikers and luring them back to a lair where they are trapped in a sort of primordial ooze before she devours them.
There are a few natural ways one could go with this premise: melodramatic thriller, prurient exploitation flick, dark comedy. The “Species” series took a similar idea in all three directions.
Here, director Jonathan Glazer (“Sexy Beast”), working from a screenplay by Walter Campbell that adapts Michel Faber’s novel, instead opts for a cerebral study of the mechanics of seduction and the allure of the ideal female form.
It’s an ambitiously off-kilter choice, cloaked in a score by Mica Levi packed with haunting discordant string strains and atonal digressions. The film begins with an extensive close-up on an eye and a wordless sequence in which Johansson’s alien adopts her human skin. It remains ensconced in abstract territory through the end, with the actress giving her first performance that seems to consciously upset our expectations, enhancing the abstruse quality that’s so often at the core of her work.
For all its qualities “Under the Skin” ultimately frustrates. It plays like an experimental art project pushed past its natural breaking point. Form is content; Glazer offers a lot of meticulous, slow scenes of the star driving across the country, close-ups on her hollow face, surreal superimpositions and haunting excursions into the void where the protagonist traps her men.
Once the initial fascination wears off, once you’ve adjusted to this otherworldly milieu, there are basically two choices: be wowed by the artifice, by the strong mastery of craft, or hope for something more.
Cold and distancing, “Under the Skin” plays like a movie with a lot on its mind, leaving little room for some basic cinematic concepts. There’s got to be something deeper, more tangible and human about a film for it to resonate as much more than an intriguing experiment. By the time the movie tries to move in that direction, it’s too late. In other words, there isn’t enough under the skin.
Directed by Jonathan Glazer
Starring Scarlett Johansson
Playing at AMC Empire, Regal Union Square