Review: Scarlett Johansson plays succubus in creepy 'Under the Skin'

Scarlett Johansson plays an alien who becomes more human. A24 Films
Scarlett Johansson plays an alien who becomes more human.A24 Films
Published April 14 2014
Updated April 16 2014

Under the Skin (R) (108 min.) — Scarlett Johansson as an alien seductress spending a good portion of the movie in various states of undress? Hold on, tiger. That sort of lustful spirit gets men extraordinarily killed in Jonathan Glazer's ponderously fascinating sci-fi oddity, as if Species were remade by Kubrick.

Johansson plays an unnamed creature whose "birth" in human form is abstractly depicted in the first of a procession of visually striking and aurally grating sequences. Under the Skin is a series of insinuations, a cycle of behavior gradually extended in what viewers are allowed to know. What it all means — if anything beyond unconventionality — is left for viewers to decide.

The alien's routine is that of a sexual predator, down to the windowless van she drives around Scottish villages, flirting men into the passenger's seat. She'll drive them to her cottage, a front for a pitch-black void they won't escape. The alien strips off her clothes as she slowly crosses the floor; they follow doing the same except the floor swallows them. The carnal symbolism is unmistakable.

Again and again this happens, until Glazer takes us under the surface of that floor-pool to see what happens, and it's an imaginative sight. Only once but that's enough, followed by brief images leading to a conclusion of the alien's motive that really doesn't matter.

What does matter is the alien's curiosity and growing comfort in this new world, conveyed in simple touches, like fingers tapping to a jazz tune or an unexpected display of compassion. She becomes more human, therefore more vulnerable and terrified as a woman, which I'm guessing is Glazer's point, obliquely made.

This isn't an easy viewing experience. Under the Skin is long, wordless passages punctuated by dialogue mostly delivered in thick brogues begging for subtitles. Mica Levi's "musical" score — all scraped violins and droning synth-thumps — grates on the ears. The frequent male frontal nudity alone may offend. Johansson's impassiveness is appropriate but hardly a performance to anchor a movie upon.

Yet there's something fairly malignant in the way Glazer's strange movie holds attention, against the urge to give up and leave. There is no doubting its boundless artistry or pretension, a dangerous position for any movie in today's love-me pop culture to place itself in. Under the Skin is exactly where it gets. A- (Tampa Theatre, Veterans 24 in Tampa)

Steve Persall, Times movie critic