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Under the Skin

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“Under the Skin” is the story of an alien who comes to Earth, interacts with our kind, and learns what it means to be human. It’s like a nightmarish, adults-only version of “E.T.,” if E.T. fed on Elliott instead of befriending him.

But that description hardly does justice to a uniquely surreal and understated film written and directed by Jonathan Glazer (“Sexy Beast,” “Birth”), based on Michel Faber’s novel but revised by Glazer into something you can scarcely imagine existing in book form at all.

The extra-terrestrial doesn’t have a name, but she has adopted the physical form of Scarlett Johansson (good choice) as she roams Scotland in a van looking for men. Only men will do, and they need to be men whose disappearance won’t immediately be noticed. She attracts them by … well, she attracts them by looking like Scarlett Johansson, and by pretending to need directions. Then she lures them back to her cottage, where she performs a sort of seductive dance as they disrobe. Then the men are never heard from again. Johansson plays a character called Black Widow in the Marvel comic book movies, but it fits her here too.

Glazer makes it clear that our woman and her associate, a man who follows after her on a motorcycle to erase evidence, have no compassion for humans as sentient creatures. This is conveyed subtly at first — she’s more interested in the tiny ant crawling on the dead woman whose clothes she stole than she was in the woman — and later with cold, horrifying clarity as she and her cohort ignore the screams of an abandoned baby.

But the next time Alien Lady hears a baby cry, it gives her pause. Just a little, just for a second. She begins to notice the things that make humans different from other creatures, most essentially the quality of empathy. She becomes aware of female humans and how they differ from the male ones. We get the sense she’s curious what it would be like to be human — and that this curiosity is counterproductive to her species’ purpose.

Many details of both plot and character are implied rather than shown. Except for the idle chatter between Johansson and her potential victims (many of whom were real passersby, not actors), there is almost no dialogue, and it’s not as if our heroine’s gradual realizations about humanity are accompanied by thought bubbles. (Johansson’s performance is brave not just because she’s occasionally nude but because so much of the character is internal.) Where a straightforward genre film would depict a spaceship or teleporter, Grazer uses ethereal sound effects and Kubrickian space imagery to suggest the woman’s extra-terrestrial origin. It’s a movie that requires — and rewards — your attention and imagination.

And it’s frequently mesmerizing, thanks in part to Johnnie Burn’s eerie sound design and Mica Levi’s industrial musical score. These two elements, sound design and music, are perfectly complementary (it’s often hard to tell where one stops and another starts), and Glazer uses them masterfully to increase tension and convey mood. Sometimes he uses pure, suffocating silence to achieve the same thing.

The alien’s crash course in humanity is not a heartwarming affair, to say the least. She’s a fearsome predator — but so are people, when they want to be. The more she experiments with being one, the more she realizes this. Gender politics play a crucial, unspoken role, the alien using the promise of sex to lure men to her lair but being discomfited by the realities of actual sex. That’s what it means to be human, after all: we have emotions, we have sex, and we often get messed up by it. “Under the Skin” addresses all this and more in an unnerving, unforgettable way.

A- (1 hr., 48 min.; R, abundant graphic nudity, some sexuality, some strong violence and disturbing imagery.)

Originally published at About.com.