April 9 2014 04:07 PM

Scarlett Johansson and Jonathan Glazer's sci-fi marvel explores identity from the inside out

Scarlett Johansson is watching.

The act of viewing implies that each of us chooses a specific angle with which to see. Our perspective can refer to a physical vantage point, but there's also an ideological and emotional element to the process. We all bring bias to the table; it's what makes us fallible human beings. The infinite assumptions that are produced from a single person watching the world go by are downright scary.

Laura (Scarlett Johansson) spends a lot of time gazing: at streets, horizons and crowds, but she brings no judgment to the table. Her probing eyes scan the foggy, rain-drenched Scotland landscape with the objectivity of a lion stalking a herd of gazelle. She is an alien that dresses itself in a human cloak during a surreal sequence early in Jonathan Glazer's sci-fi marvel Under the Skin. For the rest of the duration, this extraterrestrial explores Earth as if it were a complex diorama, one that eventually traps her in a web of humanity.

Glazer loves a splashy opening. Under the Skin begins with all-encompassing darkness that leads to a falling orb taking center stage before finally splintering into an array of constellations and planets seemingly locked in perfect formation. These celestial images are juxtaposed with a scratching musical score that conveys a sense of longing and confusion that will reflect Laura's own transformation. Under the Skin's magnetic lead salvo finally comes to rest on a close-up of an eyeball, another inference that seeing is indeed believing, even if we aren't quite sure what to feel.

There's a mysterious man on a motorcycle who provides Laura with a van, the vehicle she'll use to lure young men into a dark, soupy ocean. Her mission is almost ethnographic, collecting human tissue and transforming matter into data. But what's most important is how she begins to see her victims and the world at large. First, Laura views her surroundings from an angle of professionalism, conducting an investigation above suspicion due to her sensuality and gender. This all changes when she meets one particular gentleman who challenges these notions of duty and purpose.

It's safe to say that Under the Skin is an ambiguous film, but it's by no means indecipherable. As Laura's focus shifts from goal-oriented to shapeless, the film itself begins to stray with her into various pockets of experience. She's sucked into a trance-like rave by a tsunami of young women and later drifts through a knotty forest in the highlands with puddles for eyes. Through it all, Laura's confusion (and curiosity) increases, culminating in a moment of sexual curiosity that cements her alienation.

Remember, it's all about angle. Like the naked young men who are forced to look up at Laura as they descend beneath a surface of black tar, the character herself must stand in awe of the planet she has been tasked to invade. Take, for example, the magnificent sequence that finds Laura wrapped in a blanket of stifling fog on a remote highway, which calls to mind Michelangelo Antonioni's equally haunting roadway scene in Identification of a Woman. Here, Johansson's eyes convey the simultaneous panic and wonder that comes with the birth of an emotional range.

If Glazer ends his sunburnt debut, Sexy Beast, on a happy note and his gloomy existential tragedy, Birth, on a doomed partnership, he gives Laura a denouement that somehow finds aspects of both. Transformation once again plays a role, yet the notion of life after death is completely stunted by the parade of self-destruction we've just witnessed. With its kinetic attention to image and sound, it's clear that Under the Skin—which opens Friday, April 11, at Hillcrest Cinemas—wants us to experience the perspective of its intergalactic protagonist. But Glazer also recognizes Laura's fateful inability to fully understand humanity's worthy subtext, especially when all we've shown her is our bafflingly brutal surface.

Write to glennh@sdcitybeat.com and editor@sdcitybeat.com. 


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