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Under the Skin’ comes close to being a masterpiece

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Under the Skin

Four stars

Under the Skin Scarlett Johansson, Adam Pearson, Jeremy McWilliams. Directed by Jonathan Glazer. Rated R. Opens Friday.

For about an hour, Jonathan Glazer’s third feature, Under the Skin, simply follows a young, unnamed woman (Scarlett Johansson) as she drives a cargo van around Glasgow, occasionally stopping to ask directions from single men. A wordless, abstract opening has already established that this is not, in fact, a young woman, or even a human being; her mission, seen but never stated, involves luring the men to a deserted house—or what looks like a house, anyway—and trapping them in a viscous liquid for future consumption by her race. This is all much more clearly set out in Michel Faber’s source novel, but Glazer has little interest in the book’s satirical take on factory farming, and he jettisons the protagonist’s tortured internal monologue. Instead, the movie serves primarily as a spectacularly eerie mood piece that attempts the near-impossible: giving us a view of our planet through the eyes of a genuinely alien consciousness, one that—at least initially—views humanity in roughly the same way that humanity views cattle.

Had the film continued indefinitely in that vein, it might have been a masterpiece, albeit one so cold and alienating that it would likely have repelled more people than it enthralled. (Arguably, that’s still the case.) Instead, the alien’s encounter with one unusual “specimen,” played by an actor with a real-life case of neurofibromatosis, triggers a sudden shift in its attitude toward Earthlings, and by extension toward the fake human body it inhabits. Under the Skin’s second half, while still quite strong, is considerably more conventional than its brutally disquieting first half (aided immeasurably by Mica Levi’s nerve-jangling score) would have suggested, metamorphosing from something almost avant-garde into a variation on films like Starman and The Man Who Fell to Earth, in which a visiting alien gets seduced by the human race. If nothing else, though, this purely visual marvel confirms Glazer (Sexy Beast, Birth) as one of the most visionary directors currently working. Nearly a decade passed between his second and third films; let’s hope the wait is never so long again.

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