When Scarlett Johansson joined the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Iron Man 2 in 2010, she entered what would shortly become the dominant franchise in modern cinema. Prior to taking on the role of Natasha Romanoff, she had primarily been known for smaller-case, character-driven movies like the Bill Murray drama Lost in Translation and her run of acclaimed collaborations with controversial filmmaker Woody Allen. The MCU put Scarlett Johansson into a whole different category of films, but she did not immediately start making blockbusters just because she was suddenly one of the biggest stars on the planet. Case in point: her 2013 movie Under the Skin. The Jonathan Glazer-directed science fiction movie is inarguably the strangest and most frightening film Scarlett Johansson has ever made, and somehow it is currently in the top ten most streamed movies on HBO Max.
Under the Skin stars Scarlett Johansson as a mysterious figure referred to in the credits only as “the Female.” Through the course of the largely plotless and opaque film, Scarlett Johansson drives a van through Glasgow, stopping to ask random men for directions, and luring them into a featureless black void in which they disappear into some kind of liminal space and suffer some kind of abstractly horrible space. As she goes about her mysterious tasks, she seems to become increasingly interested in humanity, though it is impossible to tell exactly how or why. Scarlett Johansson is also either supported or supervised or under the thumb of a motorcyclist referred to in the credits as “the Bad Man” (professional motorcycle racer Jeremy McWilliams). At the end of the movie, she dies. That is all.
But to simply list some of the more notable events of Under the Skin is to completely miss the foreboding, chilling tension that suffuses the film. The film is very loosely adapted from a novel of the same name by Michel Faber, but keeps only some key elements: an alien is disguised as a human on Earth and lures men to their doom. In the novel, it is clear that these men are being harvested as food for another species, while the film only alludes to whatever purpose Scarlett Johansson is selecting them for.
At one point, a man who attempts to pick up Scarlett Johansson in a nightclub (which she has been essentially strong-armed by a group of revelers who assume she is part of their group) sinks into the blackness of the void and floats naked in emptiness. He sees another man there, his body queasily distorted and damaged in some undefinable way. He reaches out to touch him, only for the other to be somehow compressed and hollowed out, followed by an image of bright red fluids and viscera hanging in the darkness. Between that and a scene in which both she and the Bad Man leave a screaming infant on a beach with barely a glance, this movie is terrifying in its literal inhumanity.
Most of Under the Skin is similarly abstract. The film is undeniably a science fiction film but gives you no clues as to exactly what is happening or why. If you did not know that Scarlett Johansson was an alien, it would not be obviously apparent until the final moments of the film, when she literally pulls off her skin to reveal a blank-faced, cobalt alien underneath. There is little dialogue in the film, and most of it is repetitious questions from Scarlett Johansson to try to get men into her van. Much of the film was shot with hidden cameras, and apparently, many of the Scottish men on the street she speaks to were actual pedestrians who did not recognize Scarlett Johansson in her black wig and expressionless queries.
Under the Skin is one of Scarlett Johansson’s finest performances, and likely the one that requires her to do the most with the least. Her character rarely ever speaks if she is not trying to ensnare men, and even then, reveals nothing of herself. She rarely changes her expression, she does not ever change her clothes, and she seems to feel no sense of remorse, satisfaction, or happiness. Yet Scarlett Johansson holds herself with a constant tension that signals the sheer alien quality of the Female; despite her beauty, there is something disquieting about her. It is notable that despite the frequent nudity of one of the world’s most popular actresses in the film, it did not become known as a salacious film in which you could peek at Scarlett Johansson’s body. It is simply too strange and frightening for that.