There are few movies as creepy as Under The Skin, the movie featuring Scarlett Johansson as an alien who drives a van around Scotland picking up men. The whole thing is skin-crawling: her patter as she tries to coax men to come with her, her blank stare in the face of horrors, the dispassionate camerawork. It's horribly alien.
Some spoilers ahead...
Based on the novel by Michael Faber, Under the Skin takes a weird premise and makes it much, much weirder, thanks to some unusual stylistic choices by director Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast). (Read our interview with Glazer for a deep dive into the strange film-making choices in this movie.)
Among other things:
1) Under The Skin uses a kind of documentary film-making style, mixing reality with fiction in a really odd "meta" fashion.
2) Some of the men whom Johansson is picking up on the road are real strangers, not actors. They seem genuinely confused
4) The film is slow-paced and intensely repetitive, and not much happens for long stretches.
5) The scenes inside Johansson's alien lair are really stylized and glossy, almost like a music video, in contrast to the rough look of the rest of the film.
So the film is sort of like a mash-up of recent "found footage"-style movies with 1970s alien-among-us films like The Man Who Fell To Earth, which Glazer acknowledges as an influence. It's an odd stylistic blend, that adds to the film's creepiness considerably — you expect horror and weirdness, and the film delivers instead a kind of flat affect.
And Under the Skin clearly wants to conjure a kind of alienation, and push you away from sympathizing with anybody. The film portrays the "real" world as if from within a kind of K-hole, from a great distance and yet up close. The interactions are real, but the situation is totally unreal — in real life, a woman driving around picking up strange men at night might be considered a potential victim, not so much predator.
The overall effect is to show you what our world might look like through the eyes of an alien being, who understands human interactions enough to finesse them, but doesn't really sympathize with humans.
Especially at first, Johansson views every interaction with humans as purely a means to an end. Her goal is simple enough: to bring men back to her dark cave, and she's wearing a human disguise that's attractive enough that this ought to be simple. But it's never simple, because of the complexities of human social interactions and mating rituals. The men are shy, or confused, or wary, or protective, and they force Johansson to develop social skills to deal with them.
The only real character in Under the Skin is Scarlett Johansson, but the film's about men — it's about their strange reactions as this woman shows up and tries to take them away, and later it's about their feelings about this increasingly strange woman who is wandering alone. The movie is really about studying these men, and compiling a composite portrait of male desire, fear and social awkwardness. The men are almost interchangeable, especially at first — but the film goes to great lengths to show how each specimen behaves in its strange experiment.
In this film, the men of Glasgow are poor lost creatures, at the mercy of insecurity and sexual anxiety, and to some extent Scarlett Johansson is an alien simply because she's a beautiful woman who wants to talk to them.
At the same time, Johansson's character has a really clear arc, which is spelled out through her interactions with these men. The men in the movie chart her progress from heartless predator to something more fascinating — and so does a mysterious guy, who rides around on a motorcycle clearing up after her but never interacting with her. Johansson herself never really emotes, remaining blank and unnatural, but we see her evolving thanks to her contact with her human victims.
So is Under the Skin a good movie? Hard to say. It's definitely a fascinating movie, which casts a weird spell over you. The slowness and largely unexplained weirdness are not going to be for everyone. If you take it on its own terms, though, it's a beautiful, disarming trance.
In a sense, Under the Skin does the opposite of Scarlett Johansson — she seduces people and pulls them in, only to spring a weird surprise, but this film does its best to alienate and repel the viewer, but then surprises you with its strange beauty. For anyone who wants to spend a couple hours dreaming about what it would be like to be an alien on Earth, it's probably a must-see.