'Under the Skin' Review: Scarlett Johansson

Jonathan Glazer's long-awaited third feature is an undeniably ambitious but ultimately torpid and silly tale of an alien on the prowl.

Scarlett Johansson stars as a woman who falls to Earth — Scotland, to be precise — in “Under the Skin,” an undeniably ambitious but ultimately torpid and silly tale of an alien on the prowl in human clothing that marks the long-awaited third feature by “Sexy Beast” director Jonathan Glazer (nine years after butting heads with New Line over his very fine Nicole Kidman vehicle “Birth”). Very loosely based on Michael Faber’s acclaimed 2001 novel, here reduced nearly to the point of abstraction, the pic strenuously attempts to show us the world through “alien eyes” but ends up seeming rather like a feature-length “Candid Camera” show where, instead of being punk’d, contestants get swallowed up by a mass of intergalactic goo. The sort of movie that might have worked better as a gallery installation one could enter and exit at will, “Skin” is outre enough to amass a small coterie of defenders, though commercial distributors won’t be chief among them.

Glazer, whose background is in musicvideos, has lost none of his ability to generate strikingly original images, as the opening of “Under the Skin” confirms: A small pinhole in the center of the screen grows gradually larger until it becomes a white, doughnut-shaped mass. A black orb then moves toward the center of the doughnut and makes contact, until what we are looking at resembles a human eye. Next, a motorcyclist, zipping through what appear to be the Scottish Highlands, stops to remove a corpse from a roadside ditch and loads it into the back of a cargo van. Then, against an all-white screen that suggests the galactic hotel room from “2001” stripped of its furniture, the nude owner of that humanoid eye (Johansson), herself a dead ringer for the corpse, dresses in the lifeless woman’s clothes (stiletto heels, fishnet stockings, et al.) and sets off on her journey.

We seem to have witnessed some kind of birth here, though Glazer (who adapted Faber’s novel together with Walter Campbell) is deliberately short on details. In the book, this strange creature was called Isserley and had come to Earth with the mission of luring handsome human males into her trap so that they could be turned into a kind of alien caviar. Here, Johansson bears no name and her motives — if any — are markedly less clear. In his attempt to render an alien p.o.v., Glazer devotes much of his pic’s running time to Johansson traversing Scotland in said cargo van, stopping to ask directions from various male passersby, whom she subsequently tries to lure into the van. For those thus tempted, the night is likely to end in an abandoned squat, where Johansson uses her mysterious alien powers (and various states of undress) to lead the men into a strange dark pool that consumes them like quicksand. And that, as we later learn, isn’t the half of it.

Glazer’s initially intriguing formal conceit is that Johansson — reasonably well disguised under a dark wig, cheap-hooker couture and Brit accent — is one of the few pro thesps here, interacting with real unawares Scotsmen, all of it captured by small digital cameras mounted in and around the van. (The strategy shares something with the one employed by Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami to film the driving scenes in his “Taste of Cherry.”) Glazer does the same hidden-camera thing when Johansson is walking down a crowded Glasgow street, or ushered by a mob of female revelers into a nightclub throbbing with strobe lights and house music. In one of the movie’s more inspired, lyrical episodes, she offers a ride to a badly disfigured man en route to do his grocery shopping under cover of night, and seems not to notice his Elephant Man-like deformity. In one of the more inscrutable encounters, she fails in her efforts to seduce a Czech swimmer at a rocky beach, then bashes his skull in with a stone.

And so it goes, for a needlessly protracted 108 minutes, as initial intrigue gives way to repetition and tedium. Glazer has always been longer on atmosphere and uncanny moods than on narrative, but the fatal flaw of “Under the Skin” isn’t that not much happens; it’s that what does happen isn’t all that interesting. The world as seen through alien eyes, it turns out, looks much like the world as seen through the eyes of a schizophrenic  (“Repulsion”), a paranoiac (Lodge Kerrigan’s “Keane”) or a sociopath (Cristi Puiu’s “Aurora”) — which, if it’s Glazer’s point, is one he makes early and often, Johansson doing her best to convey varying degrees of blankness and incomprehension at her own actions and those of others.

Owing to the dominant GoPro video aesthetic, “Under the Skin” becomes visually monotonous, too, only in a few more conventionally staged sequences featuring the kind of sharp, painterly images that graced Glazer’s prior features and the opening moments of this one. Similarly, all of the pic’s tech qualities are intentionally rough-hewn, with the combination of noisy location sound recording and cast’s thick Scottish brogues rendering large swathes of dialogue incomprehensible.

Telluride Film Review: 'Under the Skin'

Reviewed at Telluride Film Festival, Aug. 29, 2013. (Also in Venice Film Festival — competing; Toronto Film Festival — Special Presentations.) Running time: 108 MIN.

Production

(U.K.) A StudioCanal release of a Film 4 and BFI presentation in association with Silver Reel, Creative Scotland and FilmNation Entertainment of a Nick Wechsler/JW Films production. (International sales: FilmNation Entertainment, Beverly Hills.) Produced by James Wilson, Nick Wechsler. Co-producers, Alexander O’Neal, Gillian Berrie. Executive producers, Tessa Ross, Reno Antoniades, Walter Campbell, Claudia Bluemhuber, Ian Hutchinson, Florian Dargel.

Crew

Directed by Jonathan Glazer. Screenplay, Glazer, Walter Campbell, based on the novel by Michael Faber. Camera (Deluxe color), Daniel Landin; editor, Paul Watts, music, Mica Levi; music producer/supervisor, Peter Raeburn; production designer, Chris Oddy; art director, Emer O’Sullivan; costume designer, Steven Noble; sound (Dolby Digital), Nigel Albermaniche; sound designer/supervising sound editor, Johnnie Burn; visual effects supervisors, Tom Debenham, Dominic Parker; visual effects, One Of Us; stunt coordinator, Gareth Milne; assistant director, Nick Heckstall Smith; second unit director, Tom Debenham; casting, Kathleen Crawford.

With

Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams, Lynsey Taylor Mackay, Dougie McConnell, Kevin McAlinden, D Meade, Andrew Gorman, Joe Szula, Krystof Hadek, Roy Armstrong, Alison Chand, Ben Mills, Oscar Mills, Lee Fanning, Paul Brannigan, Marius Bincu, Scott Dymond, Stephen Horn, Adam Pearson, May Mewes, Michael Moreland, Gerry Goodfellow, Dave Acton, Jessica Mance.

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