Movie review: Johansson gets under your skin, but film doesn't

SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLEApril 18, 2014 

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Scarlett Johansson plays a sexy, lonely alien doing creepy and mysterious things to men in “Under the Skin.”

  • UNDER THE SKIN ••

    Rated: R for graphic nudity, sexual content, some violence and language. Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams, Lynsey Taylor Mackay. Director: Jonathan Glazer. Running time: 107 minutes. Theater: Flicks.

"Under the Skin" can be confused for a movie that hides its meanings, when it's really a movie that hides its meaninglessness.

A film of empty surfaces, it begins with a white dot on a dark screen that could be a planet or a space ship. This changes into something that could be optometry equipment before becoming a human eye.

With its dissonant soundtrack, it's an expressionistic opening reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman's "Persona," only minus the emotion, the meaning and the interest.

But the ambition is there.

"Under the Skin" is an attempt at something - not something serious so much as serious-seeming - and it gets credit for escaping the usual pattern.

Scarlett Johansson, in a black wig, plays a mysterious woman who drives around Glasgow, Scotland, in a van. Periodically, she asks men for directions and then strikes up a conversation. If they say they live alone, she invites them into the van and takes them back to her place, which is not a regular apartment. It's a surreal dark tunnel, and as they walk toward her, taking off their clothes, they sink into thick black liquid, until fully submerged. Then they stay there, suspended.

So this is no normal woman. This isn't even a normal homicidal maniac. This is someone on some kind of supernatural harvesting project. And the movie never advances beyond that.

Instead virtually the entire action of the film just repeats the same kind of event - she goes out, looks for a man, etc. As one might imagine, this becomes quite dull, even sleep-inducing, especially considering the movie's overall cast of slow-moving gloom.

Gradually, it's possible to infer what she's really after, and you can see the movie as a meditation on loneliness. But at its most essential, "Under the Skin" seems more like a phobic sex fantasy circa 1900, a cautionary tale about the dangerous power of the feminine.

Or perhaps it's more specific, a movie celebrating Johansson's ability to get anybody into a van in less than 30 seconds.

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