The opening visuals flicker and mutate, and eventually, a fully formed human eye gazes out of the screen. The eye belongs to a female being, an alien presumably, and after she is fitted out in a dead girl’s clothes, she prowls urban Scotland in a van. The alluring alien is played by Scarlett Johansson, and for long stretches of time, the camera focuses only on her, as she drives the van with no discernable purpose.
But the alien does have a purpose: picking up unwary men, and preferably men without anyone who would immediately miss them. Reportedly, the near-miss pick-up encounters were shot from real life–secretly filmed from the back of the van. This doesn’t add, or detract, from the languorous, vaguely unnerving, and cumulatively boring, build-up. The alien takes the men to her remote house, and they do not leave. What happens to them is gradually revealed with disturbing, repeating images, and so is the alien’s lack of emotion, which becomes chillingly obvious during a sequence at a beach where a young mother flounders under a tidal swell.
And then the alien entraps a severely deformed man, whose vulnerability seems to seep under her programmatic mindset, and she begins to become aware of her surroundings: the streets of Glasgow, brimming with mundane liveliness, and the grandeur of the forested highlands. And then, as if in a somnambulist escape from . . . something (also incrementally revealed), she becomes aware of her own physicality.
By the time Under the Skin becomes compelling, it may be too late for most audiences. Director Jonathan Glazer, who made a splash with his assured crime-noir debut, Sexy Beast, followed by the atmospheric and beguilingly layered reincarnation drama Birth, has deadened this film’s intrigue with long, art-school tracking shots given an unearned aura of profundity by the atonal score and solemn cinematography. The unblinking focus is on Johansson’s lush beauty, and the imperceptible shifts in consciousness she gives the alien, but the being’s forays unfold through variations, as though the director was so besotted with this peculiarly hermetic set-up that he believed he was creating a hypnotic stasis. It’s not hypnotic. Toward the end, however, the mood alters and accelerates, and Under the Skin quietly crescendos with an expertly executed horror-movie twist. But paradox, however creepy, is not enough.