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Scarlett Johansson surprises in ‘Under the Skin’

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We all knew it would come to this. Artificial intelligences, superheroes and now aliens from beyond the stars? Perhaps Scarlett Johansson has simply superseded portraying regular old people in favor of the wholly digital, the post-human and, in Jonathan Glazer’s cool, disturbing and moving science-fiction film “Under the Skin,” a sometimes clothing-optional extraterrestrial.

Oh, yeah, the naked thing. Yes, Johansson goes full birthday suit. But before you nerds start the car, know that as in “Her,” Johansson is savvy enough to understand how the audience has come to regard her body; she and Glazer use that in ingenious, sometimes terrifying ways.

In “Her,” she did a terrific job acting with nothing but her voice; no physical form on screen at all. In “Under the Skin,” we first see her naked form in a nonsexual, surreal and scary moment. It is decidedly not a turn-on.

At first, it is quite literally hard to know what to make of “Under the Skin.” The opening images are abstract: A white dot on a black screen gets larger, then turns into concentric rings.

Over the terrific score by Mica Levi — a sort of a cross between the choral bits of “2001” (a film recalled also by the opening visuals) and the industrial thrum of “Eraserhead” — we hear a voice, Johansson, if one listens carefully, practicing words and vowel sounds.

The white circles image resolves into an eye. The inference is that a lifeform, eventually Johansson-shaped, is being assembled in a very blank, very bright room somewhere.

This woman-shaped alien is never given a name; much like Nicolas Roeg’s “The Man Who Fell to Earth” (another touchstone) she is definitely Not From Around Here. Methodically, sans visible emotion, the woman assembles her earthly identity — some out-of-fashion clothing here, some lipstick there.

Assisted by an equally mysterious man on a motorcycle who functions as her handler (we assume — the two never speak), she steals a van and drives around Glasgow, Scotland, picking up strange men, whom she then seduces (it is implied) and, uh preserves in amber, more or less.

When she is alone, the affect is impenetrable, her face impossible to read. With the men, she is personable and charming.

Most of the movie’s dialogue takes place in the van, when the woman, speaking in a decent British accent, chats up these anonymous guys (in apparently improvised scenes with nonactors). No wonder they go back to an abandoned house with her, which is where things turn for the obtuse.

As the score revs up, the men follow her as if hypnotized into a black, abstract space. Both parties remove clothing as they walk forward, she continuing on a level path, the men sinking into an increasingly gelatinous floor.

Again, Johansson cuts a fascinatingly distant figure. A deeply upsetting scene involving a young family at a beach proves she has little knowledge or care for human life. But this also works in reverse, brilliantly, when she picks up a guy with large neurofibromatosis tumors all over his face (played by a young man with that condition). She literally cannot tell the difference between this man and any other. Or can she?

The screenplay by Glazer and Walter Campbell is based on the novel by Michael Faber. But Glazer seems determined to boil the story down to a series of images, both minimalist — a single tear lets us know someone who looks dead is horrifyingly alive — and utterly gaga in others. There is very little dialogue and, mercifully, no voice-over to clarify what you are seeing. If you have read the novel, you probably know what specific images mean. If you have not, no matter. The movie scans as full of allegories about desire, violence and identity.

In some ways “Under the Skin” is a conventional narrative — part serial killer horror, part what-does-it-mean-to-be-human? — subverted by elliptical storytelling. We don’t see this sort of thoughtful, brainy science-fiction anymore, and, at at a time when sci-fi means little more than summer blockbusters, “Under the Skin” is the best kind of palate cleanser.

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