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An amazing performance by Scarlett Johansson anchors a smart, ambitious sci-fi riddle

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One of the very first scenes in Under The Skin—director Jonathan Glazer's haunting, astonishing new science-fiction film—features Scarlett Johansson undressing herself.

But she isn't taking her own clothes off. Instead, she's removing the underwear of another Scarlett Johansson—perhaps a host body or clone—that lays dead in an abstract space of inky cosmic shadows. It's the first of many sequences featuring lingering nudity, zero erotic appeal and a deeply sinister vibe.

It appears that Johansson's nameless character is an alien sex predator in the form of an attractive young woman, recently descended to Earth to seduce, kill and harvest men. She does this by trolling the streets of Scotland in one of those vans that might as well have "Serial Killer" stamped on its vanity plate.

In a snug fur coat and jet-black curls, Johansson's character flirts with an instinctive cunning: She's looking for men who are alone and will not be missed. As she hunts, the camera tracks her prey with a lascivious gaze. It's a conspicuous reversal of the way the lens usually follows women in movies, clearly meant to rattle and challenge our assumptions. Luring the horny blokes back into her shadowy pocket dimension—any darkened doorway seems to work—she drowns them in a pool of black oil. The terrified men submerge, pop and then deflate, leaving behind grisly suits of hair, skin and orifices. It was at this point I realized I'd forgotten to breathe for several minutes.

Glazer (Sexy Beast) provides very little traditional narrative or dialogue to orient us in the story, but Under The Skin isn't nearly as inscrutable as it's been made out to be. A character arc emerges as the alien begins to feel empathy and pain. It's all conveyed wordlessly, and rather brilliantly, by carefully composed images and Johansson's amazing performance. She's in virtually every frame of every shot, often in extreme close-up. She does the magic trick that really good screen actors can do, telling a whole story with her eyes.

So what's that story about? It's open to interpretation—deliberately, I think. Under the Skin can be appreciated as straightforward freak-show sci-fi or as an allegory for sexual violence. My theory: It's about the terrible existential truth that life eats life to live, and how empathy is exclusive to the human race, as far as we know. The film's many abstract sequences of blood and cosmic plasma and distant red suns suggest that these events resonate on a larger scale.

In any case, it's a bold and thrilling piece of filmmaking, squarely in the tradition of smart science-fiction that includes Blade Runner and last year's terrific Upstream Color. Highly recommended.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Skin deep"

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