The woman who falls to Earth in Jonathan Glazer's "Under the Skin" does not have a name. Played by Scarlett Johansson with cherry-red lipstick and a jet-black shag, this striking creature -- we'll call her the Alien -- has a single purpose: to lure men to their deaths. Mesmerized, they follow her into a morass of black amber, where they remain, terrified and bewildered, until the end finally comes.
Watching "Under the Skin," you may feel like one of them. Initially, the film is fascinating, a stunning visual and aural experience that feels a bit like Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey." As in that movie, the literal blends with the figurative, and there is scant dialogue to guide us. "Under the Skin" clearly does not intend to telegraph its meaning, but meaning may not be the movie's strong suit.
Directed by Glazer ("Sexy Beast"), who co-wrote with Walter Campbell from a novel by Michael Faber, "Under the Skin" is artfully executed but utterly alienating. Perhaps that's the point. The movie is set in Scotland, where thick brogues render the locals incomprehensible and, in a way, foreign. (Johansson, oddly, adopts a saucy London accent.) What's more, the victims aren't actors. Accompanied by hidden cameras, Johansson really did drive around ambushing strange men, and their reactions are touchingly genuine. All of this makes their death scenes, accompanied by Mica Levi's terrifying, skull-scraping score, the more chilling.
Yet, "Under the Skin" never connects its themes of sex, death, humanity and otherness. The Alien seems intrigued by mankind but remains so emotionless that we never care about her. (Johannson, blank-faced, is more prop than actor here.) When she abandons a screaming, newly orphaned infant, the movie achieves an impressive fearlessness -- it's a ghastly scene -- but it also swerves into permanent, irreparable nihilism.
The point seems to be that things are pointless, but that's an easy point to make. "Under the Skin" may be dark, but it only seems to run skin deep.
PLOT An extra-terrestrial poses as an attractive woman to lure men to their deaths.
RATING R (nudity, sexual content, some violence and language)
CAST Scarlett Johansson
BOTTOM LINE Visually audacious, but the dreary story and nihilistic tone make this sci-fi film more of a slog than an epiphany.