What makes us human? How would an outsider view the human race? Are we alone in this world? These are all questions raised by director Jonathan Glazer in Under the Skin, a dazzlingly unique sci-fi experience. Scarlett Johansson is at her alluring and terrifying best in a film that will surely divide audience. Those looking for a solid story, constant thrills and definitive answers will be disappointed, while those looking for an atmospheric slow burn that touches on some interesting existential themes will be in love. This is an intoxicating film, one that will surely get even better on repeat viewings. Something this one-of-a-kind only comes along every once in a great while.

Johansson stars as some sort of alien creature, living among humans in Scotland, disguised as an attractive female. With her good looks, she lures single, lonely men into her van and takes them to an abandoned house that seems to act as a gateway to another universe. She walks the men into a pool of some sort of liquid, which eventually kills them. But she soon begins to relate to the human race, causing her to question her actions and lead her down an unfortunate path. It’s a light plot with minimal dialogue, but this isn’t what the focus of the film is. This is an instance where themes and visuals play a much more important role than the plot and the events that unfold within it.

Every scene inside Johansson’s chamber of death is visually breathtaking. We’re introduced to her character in a completely white and illuminated space; when she lures the men into the liquid abyss, the area is completely black. The production design is incredible and Glazer really seems to transport the viewer to another world. I’m not sure if these scenes occurred on another planet, on some sort of ship or right here on earth, but, even without these answers, I could not bear to tear my eyes away from the screen. Absolutely nothing is explained to the audience throughout the film, but nearly everything is so intriguing that the answers feel secondary to the visceral experience at hand.

We may not learn why Johansson’s character lures these poor men into her van, but we do know that these weren’t actors; they were real men, naturally lured into the van by Johansson and recorded on hidden cameras. This tactic of hidden camera movie making has been used in certain comedies, but it’s rare to see it in such a serious film. It does add an extra sense of realism to these scenes and, if I hadn’t known this bit of trivia before watching the film, I probably wouldn’t have been able to notice this unique filmmaking tactic. These scenes do begin to grow repetitive, but Johansson’s character picking up a disfigured man breaks the mold and is the standout moment of the entire film. Watching it is bizarre, unnerving, and also strangely touching. It’s a turning point for the film and Johansson’s character and it successfully calls to mind some of the best work from David Lynch.

Johansson has built up an incredibly strong filmography over the past decade, but her performance as the nameless woman in Under the Skin might just be her best performance since 2003’s Lost in Translation. We’re introduced to her as a creature with unclear motives, one who is willing to murder innocent men. But even from the beginning, it’s clear that she has a heart; she only kills men who are alone, sparing those who have friends or a family. As the film progresses, we see her identify with aspects of the human race and Johansson exhibits her character’s inner struggles without relying on dialogue and exposition to explain what is happening to her. By the end of the film, this alien has managed to connect with us and we, in turn, have connected with her. Johansson is alluring, frightening and completely sympathetic, often times all at once.

Under the Skin certainly isn’t for everyone; its plot is unpleasantly slow at times and some scenes are much more interesting than others. But anyone looking for a quiet, contemplative and ultimately rewarding sci-fi experience will be in luck. Aided by a haunting original score from first time composer Mica Levi and featuring great cinematography from Daniel Landin that expertly highlights the dreary, somber tone of the Scottish countryside, Glazer has crafted a beautiful film that is unlike anything we’ve seen in years. It’s artful, it’s original and it’s entirely effective.

Under the Skin receives 3.5/4

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