I began to appreciate Jonathan Glazer’s enigmatic science fiction movie, “Under the Skin,” after it ended. I experienced bouts of impatience during the film, which stars Scarlett Johansson as an alien wearing, to use the language of “Men in Black,” a Scarlett Johansson “suit.”
It takes awhile to determine her purpose on our planet, but eventually we see that she seems to be harvesting men. Considering that one of the world’s foremost major sex symbols is doing this, the subtext is pretty interesting. Considering the pace of the film, which you could call either “hypnotic” or “boring,” you have plenty of time to consider these matters.
Our story, which could arguably not qualify for the descriptor “story,” begins with an abstracts visual which, eventually, turns into a human eye. A silent man on a motorcycle drags a woman’s body into a van; Johansson’s character puts on the woman’s body and clothing. This is one of the many startlingly amazing effects. It’s almost subtle, but also spectacularly weird and disorienting.
She proceeds to drive the white van around Glasgow, surveying the many pedestrians for potential victims. Her face is a blank until she engages a man in conversation, then she easily flirts with them, asking directions and coyly flattering them. Many of the men she speaks to through her car window were real men, captured on hidden camera and apparently unaware that they were talking to Scarlett Johansson, hidden as she fools us under a bushy black hairstyle.
Once she gets a man to her house, the science fiction takes over. Hypnotized by her allure, the hapless men eagerly follow her into a completely darkened room, and she pads across a shiny black landscape, peeling off items of clothing. The men follow suit, until they are pathetically nude, and sink, without a moments struggle, almost eagerly, into a shiny black abyss. Mission accomplished, the femme fatale picks her clothes back up.
Once Johansson catches a glimpse of her human face in the mirror, a glimmer of a human character emerges. The man on the motorcycle, who we must assume is also an alien and kind of her boss, since he seems to direct her actions, attempts to act to squelch her development. Bear in mind, no one really says any of this, or anything else, to each other.
I don’t blame you if you dismiss “Under the Skin” as pretentious, annoying nonsense; maybe the emperor isn’t wearing new clothes, and we can just admit that it’s a boring movie with no talking. Or maybe it’s interesting to see one of our biggest movie stars, a particularly luscious sex symbol, fatally subvert the male gaze, and warn us that our naked desire for her will destroy us. Or maybe it’s just a beautifully rendered, semi-coherent art film, like “The Tree of Life,” an almost purely visual journey that doesn’t have to bother with details like plot or script.
No matter what your interpretation is, don’t decide until the end, which is amazing, or even later than that, like I did. No matter what you eventually end up thinking about “Under the Skin,” you will very likely find yourself thinking about it for some time.