There’s an eerie brilliance and a haunting beauty to “Under the Skin,” writer-director Jonathan Glazer’s beyond-strange exploration of what it means to be human — seen from an outside perspective.
At first, we see alien forms — something like a spaceship, maybe, or liquid filling a sphere. Then we see that the sphere has coalesced into an eyeball. Thus is a “woman” formed, in the very pleasing image of Scarlett Johansson.
This woman is on a mission. Aided by a mysterious man on a motorcycle, she takes the clothes and persona of a dead woman. She then drives in a white panel van around Scotland, looking for unattached men.
The process goes like this: She picks up a young man, drives around awhile and chats him up about himself. If he has no girlfriend or family connections, she will take him to a remote house with the promise of sex.
Then something truly bizarre happens, and it’s one of the most stunning images you’ll see in a movie this year. She walks forward on a reflective black floor, slowly undressing. The guy does the same, but for him the floor becomes a black pool of liquid — in which he quickly sinks and disappears.
From her behavior — such as a chilling scene in which she leaves a toddler abandoned on a rocky beach — we realize that Lucy is not of this Earth. But she’s learning. With each encounter, her empathy for these humans is growing — and with it, her doubts about her mission to seduce and destroy.
Glazer (“Birth,” “Sexy Beast”) and co-writer Walter Campbell, in their adaptation of Michel Faber’s novel, provide few overt clues about the origins of either the woman or the motorcycle man. In fact, very little is divulged about anyone appearing in the movie, with the credits only providing a nonspecific list of actors (many of them nonprofessionals, whom Johansson picked up hitchhiking while filming).
Glazer’s images and ethereal soundtrack pay occasional nods to Stanley Kubrick — like the first close-up of the motorcycle man’s helmet, which reflects other cars’ lights in a way that evokes the light show in “2001.” But just as often the images are strikingly original and quite unnerving.
Johansson is fascinating as the alien woman whose imitation of humanity slowly morphs into something very like the real thing. It’s a carefully modulated, and largely wordless, performance that enraptures the audience as surely as the character bewitches the poor Scottish gents lured into her van.
‘Under the Skin’
Scarlett Johansson gives an eerily fascinating performance as a sultry alien seducing young men to their doom.
Where • Broadway Centre Cinemas.
When • Opens today.
Rating • R for graphic nudity, sexual content, some violence and language.
Running time • 108 minutes.