Jonathan Glazer’s experimental sci-fi film Under the Skin boasts 2014’s most stunning and mesmerizing opening so far: a tiny pinpoint of light is slowly joined onscreen by geometric, vaguely mechanical shapes that eventually merge to form what appears to be a human eye. The curious fabrication is set to a static-heavy soundtrack of a woman’s voice as its owner learns to make the sounds that constitute human speech.
It’s more evocative of an assembly than a birth—a notion that will be conjured again in the form of a hellish conveyor belt loaded with a glowing crimson ooze. Though it’s never explained in the film, readers of the source material—Michael Faber’s acclaimed 2000 novel of the same name—will know that the goop is essentially foie gras made from people, and it’s both a delicacy and a major cash crop for corporatized aliens who send emissaries to Earth to farm human males. The task of collecting grist for their people-meat mill falls to a female extraterrestrial who has been surgically altered to appear human.
Good luck discerning any of that from Glazer’s film, which strips away 90 percent of the book’s plot and reduces it to what is essentially a 108-minute mood piece. Watching it can be a frustrating experience; there are moments of pure cinematic transcendence, but it ultimately gets lost in redundancy and inertia.
The beginning is fantastic, and the movie stays that way for a while. Under the Skin stars Scarlett Johansson as a black widow of a very different kind; in a clever reversal of serial-killer clichés, she prowls the streets and back roads of Scotland in a white van, searching for male hitchhikers who aren’t likely to be missed.
Glazer, an art-house favorite thanks to 2000’s Sexy Beast and 2004’s Birth, used hidden cameras and a heavily disguised leading lady to film real hitchhikers as Johansson interviews them, first asking for directions and then turning the questions to more personal matters. If the men are expected to arrive somewhere, or if they have families who will miss them, they’re allowed to go on their way. Drifters and bachelors, though, are lured back to the strange woman’s run-down flat, where they take part in a hypnotic ritual that begins with Johansson slowly undressing and ends with the unlucky men submerged in a pool of strange, black goo. The seduction scenes play out against a solid-black screen and are set to composer Mica Levi’s outstanding and unsettling score, which alternates between shrill strings and primal percussive beats.
Only once do we see what becomes of the alien’s victims, and while it’s not gory or explicitly violent, it is utterly horrific and impossible to un-see. Johansson’s character, insect-like in her predation, then immediately goes back on the prowl for fresh meat. Her performance is superb, and she proves herself to be entirely capable of carrying a film that relies so much on her presence and abilities.
Gradually, a theme begins to emerge from Under the Skin’s primordial ooze of sounds and images. Johansson’s alien eventually begins to view humans as something more than meat. During an early encounter, she feels nothing when a small child is left alone on a stormy beach after his parents have drowned and their would-be rescuer has been murdered. Later, though, she finds herself making personal connections that might leave her vulnerable to predatory males of the species she’s been sent to harvest. We’re reminded that the concept of alienness is entirely subjective. The final image is as beautiful as it is nihilistic, and leaves us questioning our definition of humanity.
That is, if you’re still alert enough to question such things by the time the movie drifts to a close. Under the Skin is peppered with beats of undeniable brilliance; there are moments that feel experimental to the point of being avant-garde, and, at least for the first hour, it’s refreshing to be so confounded by a movie with an alien invasion at its center. Glazer’s carefully composed, painterly images, executed by cinematographer Daniel Landin, are worth the price of admission, even as the film is undone by its dogged insistence on inertia and narrative ambiguity.
After awhile, the trance devolves into torpor, and unintentional self-parody sneaks in from those beautifully lensed shadows. Glazer’s ambition and his willingness to experiment with genre expectations are truly admirable, and it’s easy to see why his latest film has earned an enthusiastic coterie of fans. But for viewers who’d like a little more meat to chew, it feels less like a fully developed feature than an occasionally stunning tone poem. As concerned as it seems to be with what it means to be human and to meaningfully connect with other people, Under the Skin never bothers to go very deep.