Scarlett Johansson stars as an alien serial killer in Jonathan Glazer's astonishing sci-fi

A young woman is driving a white Transit van, and a young man sits beside her in the passenger seat. From their body language, we know they have only just met, but sex, or at least the idle promise of it, fills the space between them like barbecue smoke. 

He smooths his hair and glances at her breasts, while she laughs musically and asks if he lives alone. It’s evening, and traffic roars past on the road outside, the noise of each car’s engine blending into the next. Then the camera angle changes, and the woman is alone, driving on with a purposeful look. Every trace of her passenger has vanished in the cut. 

The scene comes from Under the Skin, the astonishing new film from the British director Jonathan Glazer, and the scythe-sharp brutality of that edit, along with the unappetising questions it raises, could almost be the picture in miniature. Glazer’s film, which is essentially about an alien serial-killer, has the premise of a horror movie, but the rhythms and textures of something very different. 

His earlier features, Sexy Beast and Birth, showed him to be a skilled magpie stylist, with elements of Buñuel, Polanski and Kubrick all jumbled into the mix, but it’s not clear that his new film is much like anything else at all – or even where it stands in relation to the current cinema. 

Scarlett Johansson in 'Under the Skin'

Try imagining a hybrid of Species-like sci-fi schlock, the car-bound pensées of Abbas Kiarostami, a modern poetic-realist fable, like David Mackenzie’s Young Adam, or Lynne Ramsay’s Morvern Callar, and an extended Jeremy Beadle prank. Got the image? Good. Sweep it under the carpet. It’s even more extraordinary than that. 

The film is based on Michel Faber’s 14-year-old novel of the same name, in which an alien called Isserley, disguised as an attractive woman, hunts hitchhikers in the Scottish highlands for their meat. But in the ten-or-so years it has taken Glazer to bring the story to the screen, much of its own flesh has fallen away from the bone. 

What remains is the now-nameless alien, who is played by Scarlett Johansson as a kind of prototypic femme fatale, with ash-black hair, a deep fur coat and lips as bright as blood. (Johansson is nothing short of iconic in the role, and the film’s extraordinary score, by Mica Levi, equips her with a keening, three-note Siren’s call.) 

In a breath-snatching, almost abstract prologue, we watch and hear her getting into character: words, disconnected from their speaker, flow past in a soft Home Counties purr, while synthetic human eyes are assembled before ours, ending on an extreme close-up of a trembling iris couched in milky jelly. This is a film that watches you back. 

Scarlett Johansson in Jonathan Glazer's 'Under the Skin'

In fact, its gaze is even more unsettling than you at first realise: everything you see in Under the Skin comes filtered through that ultimate outsider’s perspective, which Glazer achieved by shooting much of the film undercover, out in the real world, with a disguised Johansson weaving her spell over unwitting members of the public. (Of course, professional actors were used in some key sequences, including a scene on a beach that ends with one of the most devastating shots I have ever seen in a fictional film.) 

You’re so used to cinema defaulting to Hollywoodised versions of reality that reality itself, presented without a script, lighting or make-up, suddenly appears limb-pricklingly strange, and you find yourself siding with Johansson, as she looks at the world with a mix of confusion and unease, and wonders what on earth these creatures are that fill it. (Don’t say Glaswegians.) Accordingly, behind every interaction you can feel the steady thud of terror – and when the victims arrive back at alien HQ for processing, stumbling forward, naked and hypnotised, into a dark space that swallows them up like an oil slick, the thud becomes a ritualistic drumbeat. 

What on Earth, or off it, should we make of all this? Well, the film certainly forces us to think again about what’s really inside us – what makes us human, beyond blood, bones, nerves and meat. And there are muddy hints, in the changing responses of Johansson’s character to the people around her, that she is slowly taking on some of their qualities: empathy, cautiousness and a curiosity about the human body that runs beyond whether it’s best served fried or steamed. 

Or perhaps the film functions as a kind of pH test for humanness: as you feel the film needling away at your soul, you can at least be reassured that you probably have one to needle. There are, of course, no easy answers, although amid its scorching, fractured images, there is one certainty, brought into crisp focus. This is, very simply and straightforwardly, a masterpiece.