'Under the Skin' review: Mystery science theater

RedEye's Matt Pais and Ernest Wilkins fly through those movies (plus "Cheap Thrills") in a speed-round version of "Good or What?"

*** (out of four)

Before seeing “Under the Skin,” all I knew about the film was what a friend had told me: He’d heard Scarlett Johansson was completely naked in it.

Oh, how hilarious it will be if a group of bros heads to the theater expecting to drool over a broad party full of sloshing beer and gratuitous boobs. There’s arguably a place for that; “Under the Skin” just isn’t it. By about 1,000 miles. Adapted from Michel Faber’s novel by director/co-writer Jonathan Glazer (“Sexy Beast,” Jamiroquai’s “Virtual Insanity” video), this head-scratcher plunges sci-fi into narrative limbo and visual liquidity. It’s almost like “Species” meets “Her,” a pitch that deserves to get laughed out of an executive’s office.

Like her presence in all of “Her,” Johansson initially appears in “Under the Skin” as only a voice—the mumbly, robotic accompaniment to imagery that looks like a giant Life Saver mint being slowly filled in by an enormous, floating 8-ball. Prepare to feel like you’re lost and drifting during the movie as well. None of the characters have names; Johansson plays an unidentified woman whose first action involves peeling clothing off a dead body in order to clothe herself. She then coldly begins driving around Scotland, asking guys for directions, hoping to get them in the car and back to her place. There, the now-nude men unknowingly will walk into a pit of what looks like a thinner version of tar that rapidly ages and explodes the body.

Glazer, who reportedly shot some interactions between Johansson and non-actors incognito, favors questions over explanations. At no point does the blend of horror and beauty in “Under the Skin” tip its hand about the backstory of the motorcyclist who seems to have assigned Johansson’s alien character this task. A few shots, particularly a single tear emerging from the movie’s first dead body and the ant Johansson picks off of her, earn the cries of pretentiousness the sleek, obscure material inevitably will inspire.

However—and I can’t say I entirely understand the use of every device in the film—”Under the Skin” also seems interested in how a non-human female’s perspective would be altered by learning about humanity, person by person. If you think this sounds like the lessons acquired by Brendan Fraser after being unfrozen in “Encino Man,” you’re way off.

Watch Matt review the week's big new movies Fridays at noon on NBC.

mpais@tribune.com

 

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