Quiet, cryptic and never less than creepy, “Under the Skin” is sci-fi that doesn’t do the work for you. There are no explanations. No character rattles off a paragraph or three of exposition and backstory.
There are no names. Nobody talks at all for the first 14 minutes, and there’s not much that would even pass for conversation. Just Scarlett Johansson, driving a utility van around Edinburgh and other points Scottish, stopping and asking directions from the indecipherably accented locals.
“I’m looking for the M-8,” she asks in a soft, posh British accent, only to get an earful of a dialect that only Craig Ferguson, Gerard Butler or Kelly MacDonald could make out.
She talks only to men, and to a one, they’re a motley lot — ranging from odd to ugly, and occasionally reaching grotesque.
“No girlfriend, really?”
She’s not looking for a mate or even a date. She’s hunting for strays, stragglers and loners. And since she’s Scarlett Johansson and they’re not, sooner or later they get into the van, follow her “home,” strip in a dark black room with a shiny, reflective floor, and as they reach for her loveliness, they sink into the pool of whatever that floor really is, another victim of aliens up to no good.
Jonathan Glazer (“Sexy Beast,” “Birth”) tells us nothing right from the opening minutes, where vague shapes carry out what could be a “docking” or teleportation, and disembodied, distorted voices run through a cascade of sounds. Somebody is mastering the accent for some purpose we can only guess.
“Under the Skin” is an overcast film of glum, early winter days and a string of encounters, mostly at twilight. An unnamed assistant on a motorcycle helps Johansson’s “bait” in the day-to-day operation of this man-trap — a menacing presence in full road bike suit and helmet.
The alien, in tight jeans, jet black hair and a faux fur jacket, ventures from city to seaside and through the hills and mountains, on rainy roads and chilly days. In the streets, bars and other cars, they all notice her. They’re all solicitous, helpful to her. But even the crowds are peopled with the full array of human unattractiveness — scars and bad beards, the morbidly overweight and young women with ratty, ineptly colored hair. Whatever Glazer is saying about the Scots, it isn’t flattering.
Johansson spends much of the film putting on lipstick and driving with the same blank expression of someone unfamiliar with human interaction. Flirt with her or threaten her with assault, it doesn’t change.
But as with John Carpenter’s classic sci-fi “visitor” film, “Starman,” and others like it, she gets curious, perhaps based on remorse. We’ve witnessed a couple of the cruelest scenes sci-fi has ever produced, one involving the efforts of a family, and then a stranger, to save a dog that has ventured too far into the undertow.
“Under the Skin” isn’t conventional, thrilling or particularly satisfying in a sci-fi aliens-are-hunting-us sense. But it manages something far more sinister and fascinating. It imprints on your memory. And not just the scenes where ScarJo strips. It would be hard to imagine a less sexual use of a voluptuous actress’s nudity than the one served up here. It’s the tone, the silences and the cruelty that you can’t scrub off.
(At the Leawood, Palace, Town Center.)