“Under the Skin” begins as a tiny pin-hole of light. Building momentum and mass, it matures into a giant pupil – the electric eye of God. This opening image is appropriate to Jonathan Glazer’s astonishing yet infuriating film, in which an alien voyeur visits our world to study, and often snuff out, human life.
Glazer’s unearthly queen-bee, played by Scarlett Johansson, sports a fur coat and jet-black wig, cruising behind the wheel of a white utility van in Glasgow, Scotland. Johansson’s nameless hunter seduces seemingly lucky men from the streets, only to drown them in an inky quicksand of death. Her flat glance suggests a sort of extraterrestrial autism. Vigilant eyes, scanning the periphery through a rear view mirror, reflect both the vacant stare of Travis Bickle and the cold malevolence of the Terminator.
Glazer prefers to show and not tell. He leaves no clue as to Johansson’s mission, and his sci-fi imagery is limited to simple chambers of light and dark. Auto interiors become blindingly bright experimentation chambers. Blackened rooms promise sexual pleasure, only to immerse their visitors in death. Glowing, phallic orbs enter doughnut-shaped counterparts in weightless outer space. These images, so strikingly basic, are Kubrickian in their timelessness.
“Under the Skin” begins as a series of predatory pick-ups. Rolling down her windshield, Johansson’s temptress chats up h***y Scottish gents, then drives then to a dilapidated dive. Within its grubby interior, she saunters forward, slowly shedding her clothes as these helplessly smitten admirers follow, trancelike, in her path. Caught within a web of sexual hypnosis, the hapless victims sink, without struggle, into nothingness.
As the film rolls on, however, this scientist from the skies loses her capacity to scare us. As Johansson’s ever-evolving alien acclimates to our culture, she reluctantly comes to know, and assimilate, feelings of human fragility. Wandering through the dizzying strobes and pulsating sounds of a raucous dance club, she appears overstimulated to the point of incapacitation. After her first sexual encounter, this seemingly experienced seductress panics, quickly leaping from a lover’s bed to examine her inseminated nether regions. When she picks up a shy, disfigured man, praising his “beautiful hands” and lifting them to her cheeks, she seems oblivious to his grotesque facial deformities. It’s a strangely poignant exchange. Enlightened to the human condition, she will soon experience her own vulnerability and, eventually, violation.
By prioritizing imagery over structure, however, “Under the Skin” fails to flesh out and fully develop the potential drama of these scenes. Its extended takes, mostly of Johansson’s affectless face as she prowls for prey, become tedious. When her voluptuous lips open wide to swallow a piece of cake, there’s an erotic tingle but little impetus to drive the story. Glazer’s defiant unwillingness to cut away from a scene, most evident in an uncomfortably drawn-out shot of his alien heroine staring into a grubby mirror, makes one yearn for a hyperkinetic shot of Tony Scott.
“Under the Skin,” I suspect, will polarize viewers. Some will surrender to the film’s free-form groove, and enjoy the ride. More pragmatic souls will grow restless over both its lack of narrative thrust and monotonously drawn-out scenes.
Great films are often frustrating upon first viewing. To me, “No Country for Old Men” initially felt like a filmic case of blueballs, all tension with no release. Over time, I came to realize that by offering no catharsis, the film suggested that its pervasive web of violence was ongoing and unstoppable. But here and now, I still feel that “Under the Skin” was an unsatisfying parade of potentially brilliant images floating through a yawn-inducing, shapeless storyline. Glazer has poured a tasty drink, but there’s no carbonation to set it off. Without the fizz to ignite the flavor, what’s the point?