Movie review

British sci-fi 'Under the Skin' thrills

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What's an extraterrestrial visitor to do when he or she first gets here?

It's as much about dress codes as anything. Appearances not only can be deceiving, they must be -- if you want to get anything done.

The long-awaited film version of "Under the Skin" -- Michael Farber's sci-fi thriller -- opens with a dazzling nod to Stanley Kubrick: the slow-zoom approach and docking of a craft (to creepy bits and pieces of unintelligible words). It deposits a stranger in a strange land -- one who won't be depending on the kindness of them.

'Under the Skin'

Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams.

Rating: R for graphic nudity, sexual content, violence and language.

We never see what this un-human being looks like back home, except for one fleeting glimpse at the end. But we see how quickly and efficiently it takes on the body of an earthling who looks exactly like Scarlett Johansson.

Next stop is a cosmetics shop at the mall -- where else would a pretty young female of any planet go? She has a job to do and needs two things to do it: lipstick and compact. That's her full arsenal in an Alien Dream Act that becomes a nightmare for the hitchhikers comprising her prey.

They're in and around Glasgow, Scotland, and she has a van and an organized system of stalking and interviewing men she picks up -- of which "Are you alone?" is the most important question. The guys can't believe their good luck, charging it up to their own intrinsic sex appeal.

Serial killer? No. What then? Trying hard here to avoid spoilers: In the book, she is sent to Earth to harvest humans to be delivered -- and, well, utilized -- back home. In the film, you pretty much have to supply your own reason.

Suffice to say, the best disguise for psychopathic behavior is beauty. Her lure and allure are easy. Her problem is existential: She doesn't understand human sex, emotion, fear, death -- she has to discover and reinvent the human wheel herself. That will include unexpected compassion for one terribly disfigured young man ("You have beautiful hands"), and possibly love for another.

British director Jonathan Glazer ("Sexy Beast," 2000; "Birth," 2004), who co-wrote the screenplay, takes his time building tension and suspense with sudden short bursts of violence and very minimal dialogue. He relies on mesmerizing sounds and images -- post-industrial highways, trains, cycles, landscapes -- that often look and feel like 3-D, thanks to cinematographer Daniel Landin's skill in capturing the forbidding coastal mists, fogs and forest backdrops of northern Scotland.

Most visually amazing are the recurring, eerily silent seduction scenes in which our alien anti-heroine sheds her clothes, as do the men behind her, and walks on water while the men are slowly submerged. Turns out, it's not water so much as a sort of formaldehyde Jell-O in which they end up suspended. You've got to see it for yourself. In any case, quite a lot of Ms. Johansson is displayed then and, later, when she regards and admires her humanoid body in a mirror by the red glow of an old-fashioned electric heater.

And the strange, fresh, quietly ominous musical score of composer Mica Levi -- thumping techno-percussive, meshing with the hum of background noise -- is brilliant.

Director Glazer's influences, in addition to Kubrick, clearly include Andrei Tarkovsky's great "Solaris" (1972) and Nicolas Roeg's "The Man Who Fell to Earth" (1976). In the former, an Earth-based scientist sent to replace another one on a foreign planet encounters his wife (who has been dead for 10 years) and more alien intelligence than he bargained for. In the latter, ground control sends David Bowie's alien Maj. Tom to Earth in search of water for their dying planet but fails to inform him of the devastating earthly greed he'll encounter in the process.

Mr. Glazer's direction is nevertheless original, not derivative, as are the nice homely young Glasgow suckers his alien sucks the life out of. Most of those lured into her van aren't actors. Mr. Glazer installed hidden cameras in the van, set Ms. Johansson loose to cruise the streets and only informed the lads afterward that they'd been filmed!

Above all, the film owes its cryptic detachment to Ms. Johansson's erotic, unnerving performance, shifting smoothly from blank-faced alien to seductress mode. Her look of wonder as she walks on a pebbled beach, marveling at the beauty of Earth, is juxtaposed with her expressionless indifference to a horrible family drowning she witnesses (and compounds). She is a kind of Intergalactic Wild Child.

Some say this story is a dark satire on political themes: big business vs. the environment, predatory sexual identity vs. love .... What if, on some planets, the "people" are quadrupeds and the bipeds are food?

Be it a satisfying film whole or just an experience, "Under the Skin" is a stunning experiment, with innovative special effects and a new concept of ambient horror. Hidden meanings, or hiding its meaninglessness? What's beneath the surface? Figure that out at the bar or coffee shop after the screening.

If you give in to it, the surface itself will hold you in a trance.

Opens today at AMC-Loews at the Waterfront, Manor Theater in Squirrel Hill and SouthSide Works.

Post-Gazette film critic emeritus Barry Paris:

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