This arty sci-fi thriller, adapted from a 2000 novel by Michael Faber, raises far more questions than it answers, yet that enigmatic quality is central to its appeal. Like Birth (2004)—the previous feature of director Jonathan Glazer, with Nicole Kidman as a woman convinced that her dead lover has been reincarnated as a preteen boy—Under the Skin hints at several different readings without confirming any of them. That makes for an occasionally frustrating viewing experience, yet it also ensures that the film stays with you. If the gradual critical reevaluation of Birth is any indication, this new release may look better the longer we stew over it.
An alien life-form materializes on the outskirts of Edinburgh, occupying the body of a black-haired young woman (Scarlett Johansson). A man, possibly another alien in human form, provides her with a white van and sends her on her way. After spending time in the city, she proceeds to the remote forests of Scotland; often she asks for directions to specific locations, though Glazer never explains why she wants to visit any of them (or why she came to earth in the first place). She offers rides to a series of strange men, seduces them, and traps them in an undefined black space that mutates into an aqueous, apparently deadly substance. This pattern of travel, seduction, and predation continues until the alien meets a couple of riders whom she seems to regard with sympathy: a disfigured young man who claims to be a virgin and a rural loner who shelters her after she's stranded in the countryside. One wonders, though, whether her sympathy is genuine or just a more sophisticated lure.
Glazer reportedly spent ten years developing Under the Skin, and some aspects of it are so immaculately realized that they seem eerily inevitable. The audio design immerses the listener, its layered soundscapes suggesting how overwhelmed the alien might feel on earth. Glazer disorients the viewer through his use of the Steadicam, exploiting its uncannily smooth movement to suggest, as Stanley Kubrick did in The Shining, the perspective of a superhuman voyeur. The most impressive effects come during the seduction sequences, as Glazer creates the blank, ever-shifting environment of a nightmare.
And just as Kubrick did from 2001: A Space Odyssey onward, Glazer offsets the immaculacy of the effects with moments of spontaneity. The scenes of Johansson picking up strange men, for instance, were all unstaged; Glazer instructed the actress to offer rides to random men and shot these encounters with a hidden camera. Remarkably, these scenes fit right in with the rest of the movie—amid the meticulous filmmaking, the banal conversations seem uncanny too. Like its protagonist, Under the Skin effectively draws us in while managing to stay beyond our grasp.