Movie Reviews & Interviews from Washington

‘Under the Skin’ Review: Starring Scarlett Johansson

Under the Skin is one of those films that is equally hypnotic in its gorgeous visuals as it is in our lead actress’ performance. With 2003’s Lost in Translation, last year’s Don Jon and Her, and now Under the Skin, can I just go ahead and say that Scarlett Johansson is one of the best and most beautiful actresses working today? I can’t even talk about Luc Besson’s Lucy set to come out later this year.

We last saw director Jonathan Glazer in 2004 when he wrote and directed the gothic-like art house thriller Birth, starring Nicole Kidman and Cameron Bright. His return to film is well worth the wait, as Under the Skin is unlike anything we are likely to see this year and in years to come. It’s gorgeous, exciting, disturbing, frigid, thought provoking and fascinating all at the same time.

The opening credit sequence alone is more chilling than several other horror films that have been released in the last few years. In what seems to be an artistic vision of magnified microscopic human cells, overcome by an intense humming musical score by first-time feature film composer Mica Levi, Under the Skin begins to tell its story as soon as the lights dim in the theatre.

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Based on the novel by Michel Faber, Under the Skin follows the story of an extraterrestrial creature, which is never named in the film. Our first glimpse of our mysterious female protagonist (Scarlett Johansson) is in a bright white room where we see her naked as she is stripping off the clothes of a doppelganger-like corpse. Our siren-like creature is still getting used to her human body as she closely examines an ant crawling along her finger.

It’s not clear what their relationship is, but she does have another alien partner (Jeremy McWilliams), also in human form that is helping her in this newfound life as she journeys through Scotland meeting young men and seducing them to come home with her. Although the men think they are going home with a beautiful girl, their luck quickly changes when they realize that this seductress is anything but a one-night stand.

Scarlet Johansson has never been better as the alien seductress, who is named Laura in the novel. The now 29-year-old actress shocked us back in 2003 as an American living in Tokyo in Lost in Translation and has continued to do an array of versatile performances ever since. Johansson has one of the best character arcs I’ve ever seen as she starts off as a stone-cold creature, eventually transforming into someone who craves humanity. Johansson carries the entire film with her electrifying performance, which just gets more intoxicating with each passing moment.


Cinematographer Daniel Landin (2009’s The Uninvited) uses the picturesque background of Scotland in it’s rolling green hills and snowy mountain tops to his advantage, but it’s the scenes inside the siren’s apartment that are wickedly breathtaking. Landin uses stark white and black backgrounds and lets the actors’ movement tell the story.

Under the Skin requires patience and thought from the viewer, as there is little to no backstory explained, but if you can allow Jonathan Glazer and Scarlett Johansson to take you under their hypnosis for 90 minutes, the pay out is well worth it.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about Under the Skin is the fact that the director trusts the viewer enough to make their own interpretations of the film and the Sci-Fi elements of the story are up to speculation. Johansson certainly has the physicality of a siren, but the actress delivers one of the most enchanting performances of the year in a film that will be studied and discussed for years to come.

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