A little nerdy, a little campy, and scampering right up to the line of pretension without ever quite crossing it, Under the Skin Rorschachs the shit out of its viewers. Is it a feminist allegory? A reactionary anti-feminist hit piece? An homage to arty science fiction films like The Man Who Fell to Earth and Liquid Sky? An opportunity to exploit and punish those who want to see Scarlett Johansson naked? Sure, why not, if you say so. Who’s going to say otherwise?
Johansson plays a non-human figure (“alien” feels presumptive and limiting) who drives around Scotland picking up isolated men and leading them into a thick, dark pool to an incompletely described but unpleasant-looking fate. Reactionary! Through her work, she comes to question her male authority figure and explore the world on her own terms. Feminist! The story is told without much regard for typical narrative conventions—in particular, the dialogue is as irrelevant to the plot as it is muddy and heavily accented. Arty!
But the ambiguity and deliberate pacing help convey Johansson’s character’s displacement and alienation nearly as well as her impassive, barely perceptible facial expressions and body language. Mica Levi’s music is much more direct, setting moods from ominous confusion to over-the-top campy terror. It’s a long 108 minutes, but a weird delight for the patient viewer.