By Bill Wine
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Scarlett Johansson’s last movie was Her and all we got was her voice. We never saw her.
Her latest might have been called She. Or, possibly: It. And we always see her.
It’s called Under the Skin and she plays an alien – not from a foreign country but a distant planet. It’s a science fiction drama in which the predatory alien takes over the body of an attractive young woman in Glasgow, Scotland – shades of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
She identifies herself as Laura and drives around in a van preying on men by chatting them up in an English accent, charming and disarming them with her beauty and voluptuousness, coming on subtly but sexually, and luring them to her lair and to their doom.
Monitoring her activities is another alien who has taken over the body of a male motorcyclist.
When the men arrive at their destination with her, they are immersed and trapped in a black liquid of some sort, where their organs are apparently being harvested.
She’s certainly efficient at what she is doing, stalking her prey, but eventually she gains a measure of compassion for her victims. It’s a new sensation in her experience – uh oh: empathy — and one which troubles her.
British director Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast, Birth), who co-wrote the screenplay with Walter Campbell, based on the same-name book by Dutch novelist Michel Faber, pretty much dispenses with exposition. The result is that, although we are fascinated and visually compelled by the odd, literally otherworldly proceedings on display, and the deliberate pacing keeps us attentive, we never get a feel for why it’s happening or what the ultimate point of the exercise is.
Often silent for long stretches, the film has got atmosphere to spare, but little else in the way of narrative momentum.
Ambiguity is one thing, vagueness another, opaqueness something else. None makes for a satisfying third-act finale. Which is why this cryptic meditation on female sexuality and gender roles, this elliptical extraterrestrial character study, as visually inspired and even hypnotic as it is, always strange but never boring, still lacks closure and catharsis.
It’s surprising to learn that some of the interaction between Laura and her potential victims are actually real people, not actors, captured by hidden cameras. And it’s difficult to tell the real conversations from the scripted ones. Not that that helps or hurts the film.
Johansson, magnetic movie star that she is, easily holds the camera and delivers the calibrations of her character’s evolution with skill and command. But it’s not quite enough to bring this experiment out of the laboratory. Which is why Under the Skin is not for all tastes and will surely divide the audience.
So we’ll snatch the body of 2 stars out of 4. Under the Skin: pretentious or provocative? You make the call. As for us, we’ll say both, but more the former than the latter.