There are few greater — and rarer — delights these days than a movie that not only asks, but demands that you use your brain. Under The Skin is one of those movies. Don't be misled by the folks who reduce it to "alien lady seduces guys just like in Species." Yes, there's an alien in disguise as a beautiful woman, and she uses her beauty to lure men, but that's just a jumping-off point for the movie as it goes into some uncharted territory.
Under The Skin opens with peculiarly hypnotic imagery: what appear to be planets, followed by a point of bright light, then an unsettling close-up of a human eye. We can assume that the eye belongs to Scarlett Johansson, whose unnamed alien strips the clothes off a dying woman with the cold efficiency of a hunter skinning a deer. Garbing herself in the dead woman's clothes and driving a nondescript white van, she gives rides to men, questioning them to find out if they have friends or family. Men with no close attachments get invited back to her place, and I'll let you discover for yourself what happens then.
Adapted from Michel Faber's novel, Under The Skin is deeply unsettling throughout, primarily because its primary point of view is from the perspective of its alien protagonist. Director Jonathan Glazer makes clever use of sound, primarily when the alien is driving around, so that everyday noises are distorted and unfamiliar. Likewise, the thick Glaswegian accents of the male victims are nearly incomprehensible to American audiences, and this further increases our identification with the alien's perspective. But these moments are juxtaposed with scenes in which we realize just how detached the alien is from humans. The most devastating of these scenes is one when the alien is witness to a scene of appalling tragedy; her lack of empathy, already chilling, becomes horrifying with the actions she takes (and doesn't take), which take the tragic events to a whole new level. (Forgive me for being vague, but devastating as the scene is, I don't want to spoil it.)
Yet operating in the human world takes its toll on the alien and her mission. She starts trying to live a more human-like existence, but this doesn't pan out in the ways we'd expect. (Kudos to Glazer and co-screenwriter Walter Campbell for not relying on the usual tropes of food, sex, or babies to help an alien get in touch with its inner humanity.)
Under The Skin could have been a massive misfire, and I'll admit I was skeptical when I heard that the sublimely creepy book was being adapted for film. I was even more skeptical on hearing that Scarlett Johansson was cast, but she is perfect for the role (as it's portrayed in the film — the book's alien protagonist is considerably different in appearance and manner). Johansson has always had a slightly remote quality, and this serves her well. Adding to the sense of otherworldliness are the aforementioned use of sound, as well as the hypnotic score and some surreal visuals that are presented without explanation. It's up to the viewer to put it all together.
The film's one noteworthy flaw is that the turning point of the alien to be more human-like isn't as well-defined as it could be. It arrives a bit out of left field and doesn't quite resonate as strongly as it should. But in a movie this visually, aurally, and thematically interesting as this one, that's a minor enough misstep. If you want to use your mind and have it messed with at the same time, Under The Skin is your movie. Be sure to read the novel as well — aside from the basic premise it's quite different from the movie, but very creepy and interesting in its own right.