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Sci-fi seduction has a sinister motive

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  • A24 FILMS
    Scarlett Johansson is a deadly extraterrestrial vamp in the horror fantasy “Under the Skin.”

Scarlett Johansson as an extraterrestrial femme fatale cruising the streets of Glasgow in Jonathan Glazer’s cerebral sci-fi horror fantasy "Under the Skin" is an indelible personification of predatory allure. Wearing a dark wig and a fake-fur jacket, her character, an alien with a sinister agenda, is as fetishized an object of desire as Marlene Dietrich admired through the lens of Josef von Sternberg. You may also think of Ava Gardner, as perfect a female specimen as Hollywood ever produced, coldly working her wiles.

Johansson’s luscious, cherry-red lips, onto which she is shown daubing deeper shades of crimson, seem to have an extra cushion of softness. In "Under the Skin," it is as if the voice of Samantha — the operating system Johansson voiced in "Her" — has taken human form. But instead of a seemingly empathetic cyberfriend, she turns out to be a heartless humanoid temptress from outer space.

In the movie’s striking opening sequence, this otherworldly siren first appears as a speck of light that expands into a disc, which forms into an unblinking eye. Accompanying this metamorphosis is a scratchy electronic soundtrack by Mica Levi that suggests vaguely melodic static from another galaxy.

Rated: R
* * *
Opens Friday

That eye belongs to Johansson, whose character later appears as the driver of a white van that makes its way through the crowded streets of Glasgow. She periodically stops to ask for directions from men, then offers them a ride and beckons them to follow her as she removes her clothes and sidles backward. For her entranced victims, shown wading up to their chests in a consuming black void, the end is at hand.

In Michel Faber’s satirical novel, from which the film was adapted by Glazer ("Sexy Beast," "Birth") and Walter Campbell, her character, unidentified in the film, is named Isserley. Dispatched to Earth, she picks up muscular men who are fattened and turned into high-end meat delicacies for domestic consumption on her home planet. The film dispenses with the novel’s back story and plot, the better to conjure a mood of nightmarish alienation. The story is so stripped down that at a certain point its lack of clarity will frustrate viewers wanting more.

"Under the Skin" was filmed in tones of darkness. Johansson’s expressionless character is often in shadow, out of which she emerges like a film-noir vamp. Johansson’s husky voice, with its cultivated London accent, is as seductive as her body, which she brazenly displays.

Because the men have thick Scottish brogues that render much of what they say unintelligible, they seem as alien as she does, and you begin to see these earthlings through her eyes.

In an early scene on a beach, she observes the attempted rescue of a swimmer buffeted in heavy surf as a baby at the far end of the sand cries. When the rescuer emerges from the water and collapses, she approaches him and beats him to death with a rock as the baby continues to wail. She seems utterly indifferent.

Late in the movie, Johansson’s character appears to become more human and vulnerable after a sexual interlude with a man she picks up. A connection has been made. Her defenses lowered, she finds herself without her fur coat on a hiking trail in the highlands, menaced by a stranger.

The movie’s eerie, climactic image challenges our conventional notions of human identity and leaves us reflecting on the possibility that every being in the universe is an alien in disguise.

Review by Stephen Holden, New York Times

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