Giving Scarlett Johansson the lead role in Under the Skin was a shrewd move, for this provocative piece of science fiction is, in part, about the practice of judging someone by their physical attributes alone. When filmmakers and casting directors have previously done that with Johansson, she’s been stuck in some dreadful roles (and delivered some flat performances). Neither is the case here.
Johannson’s unnamed character is an alien, although only oblique details suggest this. The movie opens on a dark screen with a pinhole of light in the center, which grows until it forms a halo-like circle. After a bit more abstract ambience, we’re taken to a dark highway in Scotland, where a man is carrying someone who looks like Johansson over his shoulder and dumps her in the back of a van. After a bizarre body-snatching session – the details of which I’ll leave for you to discover – a “new” Johansson begins driving the van around the city, picking up random men and … well, I’ll leave that for you to discover as well.
Adapted by director Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast) from a novel by Michel Faber, Under the Skin is an otherworldly experience – not in the sense that it’s set in a galaxy far, far away, but in that it takes eerily unearthly elements and puts them in the context of drab Scottish suburbs. The house Johansson lures her victims to looks like a nondescript dump, yet inside lies an inky black room – something like a sensory deprivation tank – with a mirrored floor that inexplicably turns to liquid. Even the scenes that take place in normal locations have an unnerving vibe, thanks in large part to an insinuating score by Mica Levi that consists of distant hums, squiggly strings and sudden thumps.
With its black widow conceit, Under the Skin could easily be read as a sci-fi riff on female empowerment. Certainly this is suggested in the reversal that takes place during the entrapment scenes, in which the men are naked and exposed while Johansson, for the most part, remains clothed. (This is hardly a Roger Corman-style alien seductress.) Yet sexual power games seem secondary to what the movie mostly explores: body image and its effect on human behavior.
This is hardly a Roger Corman-style alien seductress.
For Johansson’s alien, image is at first a means to an end. She chooses to look the way she does because that’s the most effective means of hunting her prey. One victim, however, presents a complication. Removing the hood of his jacket once he’s in the van, we see that his face is severely disfigured (the part is played by novice actor Adam Pearson). Johansson doesn’t bat an eye – he’s only prey, after all – and he mistakes her nonchalance for genuine affection. When he opens up with gentle gratitude (previous men had responded to her predatory instincts with their own), she’s unsure of how to respond.
This encounter opens up a range of interesting questions for the viewer as well. What does it mean to have a body? What do we say with the ways we use them? How does our outer form shape our inner identity? And what if our outer form has the shape of Scarlett Johansson?
This may make it sound as if Glazer is using Johansson as little more than a model, which has certainly been done before. But that would be underrating her performance, which consists of multiple layers. There is the impassive huntress, scanning the streets with selective precision for the next victim. And then there is the gregarious “human,” pretending to be lost and peppering strangers with personal questions. Johansson is sneakily good in these latter scenes, overdoing the friendliness in a way that the men (many played by other non-professional actors) regard as too eager and almost, well, alien. Of course, they still get in the van.
Johansson shows a third gear in the last act, after the alien’s routine has been disrupted and she finds herself looking into a mirror, observing what she sees with a newfound sense of wonder. Vulnerability follows, though not necessarily happiness. Under the Skin longs for a world where what we look like – whether we’re beautiful or ugly – no longer dominates who we are. Yet the movie knows too well that in actual life, those who can’t keep up appearances all too often get burnt.