Magazine | May 19, 2014, Issue

Sister from Another Planet

Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin (Film4)
A review of Under the Skin

A van cruises the darkened streets of Glasgow. The driver is a woman in a fur coat, with lustrous hair and red pillows for lips. Sometimes she pulls up next to men and asks for directions, chit-chats a little with them, and, if they turn out to be alone, headed to nowhere in particular, offers them a lift. Then there’s some flirtation, an invitation back to her place, which leads to a sultry slow-walking striptease, in which she retreats into the darkness and the men, tumescent, follow her, stripping in their turn. It’s only when they’re naked that the floor beneath them turns viscous, then liquid, and they sink away into the dark — their eyes, until the liquid closes over them, still fixed on her.

She is Scarlett Johansson. She is also a space alien.

The movie, Under the Skin, is the second recent film to divide Johansson’s sexual persona against itself, to alienate her mind and heart from her extremely famous body. In Spike Jonze’s Her, she was a throaty voice without a form, a virtual consciousness who longed to be enfleshed. Here, under the direction of Jonathan Glazer, she is a mind enfleshed, but her flesh is not her own: She is a nonhuman consciousness wearing a (luscious) human body, using it to perform a specific task (in which the lusciousness is helpful), and regarding her form — at first, at least — as a mere tool, rather than an identity.

The movie’s plot, as sketched above, sounds a lot like an art-house remake of Species, the gynophobic mid-1990s horror-thriller in which Natasha Henstridge picked up men at L.A. nightclubs and then turned into a clawed-and-tentacled predator after sex. But Johansson’s visitor isn’t here for predation of that sort: She doesn’t mate with her victims, she just collects them, with a motorcycle-riding courier assisting her, for some grisly form of experimentation or exploitation that happens at a remove from her own work. She isn’t a praying mantis devouring her lovers; she’s more a naturalist collecting specimens for someone else to study and dissect.

In the novel on which the movie is based, her character has an explicit identity and purpose: She’s collecting men for an otherworldly race that has the same palate as the aliens in the “To Serve Man” episode of The Twilight Zone, who fatten and butcher us and serve us up as steak. But Glazer’s film removes those details, and their satirical edge, and leaves things more ambiguous — and thus, I would say, more disturbing. (The one shot of what happens to the men in the liquid is memorable, and not in a pleasant way.)

But this is an existential horror film, so the grisly fate of the Scotsmen entrapped by an alien soon cedes center stage to the fate of the alien herself, as she gradually gives in to a mission-altering fascination with her adopted form, her semi-humanity, her unexpected connection to the species she’s supposed to be collecting.

At first, her detachment from our concerns seems as absolute as our detachment from the fate not even of animals, but of insects. In a scene more unsettling than any of the science fiction, she goes about the business of acquiring a human specimen while ignoring — and furthering — a horrific family tragedy involving a beach, a riptide, and a toddler. (Consider yourself warned.)

That detachment frays the more time she spends in our world, watching us and listening, surrounded by our bodies and our buzz. The turning point is an encounter with a badly deformed man who has to be coaxed into believing that a beautiful woman would even talk to him, let alone touch him: Thereafter, her identity as a hunter gives way, and she becomes an explorer, a refugee, and eventually, predictably, prey herself.

The movie has been much praised, for Johansson’s alienated-yet-affecting performance and Glazer’s direction alike, and the praise is understandable. Under the Skin is haunting, frightening, mood-altering, and simply unusual — a strange, distinctive object unlike anything else on screen right now.

But if you asked me, did you like this film, the answer would be mostly “no.” The mood is ultimately oppressive; Johansson’s nudity, however aestheticized and un-erotic, is still exploitative; the deliberate unsettledness and unpleasantness of what’s on screen feel too much like ends unto themselves. The movie felt like a dark dream — one from which, at the end, I was glad to have awakened.

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