A valid alternative title for Jonathan Glazer’s belated return to feature filmmaking after 2004’s Birth could have been The Woman Who Fell to Earth. Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 Bowie vehicle The Man Who Fell to Earth presented an alien who came to Earth to save its people, only to be consumed by the very technology it introduces to humanity. The extraterrestrial in Under the Skin seduces mankind more literally, taking the form of Scarlett Johansson. But it too finds its means of dominance as dangerous to wield as it is for targets to bear.
Whereas Roeg’s film unfurls in a complex series of elliptical cuts and juxtaposed abstract imagery, Under the Skin is austere in its relentless chill. Long, ambling takes of Johansson driving around Glasgow and the Highlands generate a sense of the unearthly simply through formal ingenuity. A ringer for 2001’s stargate sequence is accomplished through nothing more than a close-up on a motorcycle helmet as car lights blur along its reflective surface.
A similarly modest but effective means of establishing a disconnect works through the incomprehensible accents of the Scottish locals, rendering speech as cryptic as it might be for an extraterrestrial with a very basic understanding of human interaction. What the alien wants with all these men is distilled into abstraction with scenes of seduction against inky voids, drained victims suspended in animation, and a half-visible conveyor belt sending slop into a thin sliver of infrared.
But though the fates of the lured men broach the horrific, Under the Skin primarily evokes a sense of loss. Its use of an alien being as a prism through which to view sexual discovery depicts a warped path of self-understanding in which people (especially women) realize sex has been externalized into something that can be wielded. A tragic interlude with a deformed hitchhiker shares the same thematic and emotional DNA as the harrowing final segment, instinctual and half-learned sexual awareness colliding with its unpredictable and potentially dangerous reality. A succubus from another world has never proved so sympathetic.