The promise of seeing Scarlett Johansson fully nude is probably enough to lure lots of people into Jonathan Glazer's alien-among-us fantasy Under the Skin, and the vision doesn't disappoint: Her figure, seen in long shot, is a grand and glowing thing. But her nakedness is the opposite of a sleazy thrill. As Glazer presents it to us, an Eadweard Muybridge nude miraculously come to life, it's so unadorned and purely human that it's entrancing on a whole other level. That Johansson's character is not human at all only adds to the pathos, and the terror, of it all. She is a killer from another world masquerading in womankind's touch-me skin. In her nakedness, she's treachery and softness rolled into one.
You could say the same of Under the Skin itself, a science-fiction rhapsody laced with thorns. Adapted from Michael Faber's 2000 novel of the same name, this is the story of a girl who fell to Earth, or who was, perhaps, put here to do a job. The exact motivation of Johansson's character is never made clear, though she seems to be harvesting male flesh for either herself or her race. Really, very little in Under the Skin is clear at all. Its secrets unspool in mysterious, supple ribbons, but that's part of its allure, and its great beauty. This picture is often mesmerizing and sometimes almost unforgivably cruel. But if Glazer is only just resurfacing with his first movie in 10 years (the last was the 2004 arty-elegant reincarnation romance Birth), at least he's coming back with a great one.
Johansson's character has no name, and though she speaks in a reasonably proper English accent, she seems to have come from nowhere. This enigmatic creature, with her short crop of dark curls and mischievous half-moon of a smile, drives around Scotland using her sexual magnetism to lure men to their doom. She banters casually with her marks to determine how much they'll be missed by anyone at home, or if they'll be missed at all. Our alien beauty leans in close to hear what they're saying, to determine if they'll suit her purposes. Some of them immediately remark on how pretty she is; others seem to avoid even looking at her, before stumbling to tell her they find her attractive.
Most, though not all, of the men in the film are non-actors, unaware that they're being chatted up by a bona-fide movie star, the proceedings captured by a small hidden camera. On the surface, at least, it's an approach that invites some moral queasiness, even though all of these "performers" were clued in after the fact and signed the required release forms, it doesn't seem right to make human beings the unwitting pawns of movie artistry. But I think the way Glazer uses these performers is respectful. We're on their side — we can't blame them for falling for this not-quite-Scarlett Johansson, because we've fallen, too.
There are dozens of mysteries in Under the Skin that don't cohere in any logical way but work like gangbusters on the imaginative subconscious. Where, exactly, does alien Scarlett lead her victims? Who knows? But we do see them, following her lead, stripping themselves naked as they stride deeper and deeper into a pool of what looks like inky black oil. They sink, while she pads across the surface with a panther's muscular grace. What happens to them after that is the stuff of Francis Bacon paintings, a loss of self that Glazer captures with disturbingly hypnotic imagery.
Alien Scarlett goes through one man after another, until one, a young man with a facial disfiguration (played by Adam Pearson) touches a seemingly human nerve in her. She never voices the thought, but we can see her wondering: Could she ever live as a human? Could she make real love with a man instead of destroying him? This particular pickup, thinking he's hit the jackpot by finding a woman who's sexually interested in him, pinches himself to make sure it's all real.
At this point, which is also the moment Johansson finally strips bare, Under the Skin becomes less sinister and more about some unnameable longing. Alien Scarlett seems annoyed by Earthlings at first, but the longer she wears the skin of a human, the more she yearns to become one. Even in her not-human state, she wants what we all want, and just like us, she has no idea how to name it.