Under the Skin | Film | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Under the Skin

An attractive alien is the locus for this sci-fi-ish meditation on being human

Beautiful, but not human: Scarlett Johansson
Beautiful, but not human: Scarlett Johansson

You don't want to see Jonathan Glazer's sci-fi thriller Under the Skin if you're looking for plot or action. It's a film for the patient, those content to indulge a filmmaker flexing his experiential and existential muscles.

Glazer (Sexy Beast, Birth) adapts Michel Faber's novel about an alien (Scarlett Johansson) who takes on the form of an attractive human female and entices men to their deaths. (Or at least, an end of life as we understand it: The men appeared to be stored for fuel or sustenance in a house full of shiny black goo.)

Much of the languid, often obtuse film features the alien driving around Glasgow, Scotland, in a van — observing street life and occasionally picking up men. (She is occasionally helped by a man on a motorcycle, who seems to be an alien colleague.) There's also a mesmerizing and horrifying scene at a beach, and the film's final third finds the alien pursuing more personal interests in the moody, foggy wilds of the Scottish highlands.

From its very first scene — perhaps a spaceship docking that morphs into an eyeball that grows? — Under the Skin is unsettling, but gorgeously filmed, with provocative imagery and Mica Levi's interesting soundtrack of electronic music and ambient noise. Thematically, Under the Skin is interested in just that — what exists beneath, whether it's skin under clothes (there is ample nudity), unseen but deadly ocean currents, or ugliness hidden within the soul of an ordinary-looking person.

The alien is truly not of this world, as she struggles to understand humans and how they function. She is initially impassive beyond her man-luring task, but slowly tries on aspects of human behavior, which in turn makes her increasingly vulnerable. Ironically, the more human-like she grows, the less intriguing the film becomes, as the alien becomes the subject of more typical plot devices. It was much more fascinating watching her drive around watching us, in all our incomprehensible and mundane states.

Not a film for everyone, but if you liked the weird parts of 2001, The Man Who Fell to Earth or Shane Carruth's head-scratchers, you should dig this.

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