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Scarlett Johansson sizzles in "Under the Skin"

A heartfelt story of the human condition masquerading as sci-fi kitsch

What if "Species" were a first-rate art film?

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In the 1995 horror/science-fiction/presumably unintentional comedy film Species, Natasha Henstridge gives a subdued, nuanced performance as Sil, a shrieking nymphomaniac space monster disguised as a beautiful, vestiphobic woman hell-bent on canoodling with the nearest human male in order that she might loose her unearthly brood on an unsuspecting populace.

It's one of the finest motion pictures ever committed to celluloid, perhaps only outdone by its sequel - Species 2 - which features two shrieking nymphomaniac space monsters.

I only bring this up because I feel compelled to point out that contrary to what many of my fellow film critics and cinephiles have argued, Under the Skin isn't Species. True, both films feature an antagonistic alien masquerading as a lovely lady and using her feminine wiles to achieve sinister ends, but that's a time-honored trope of the sci-fi genre. It predates both films considerably, showing up in movies like Decoys, Lifeforce, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the television miniseries V and at least half a dozen episodes of Star Trek, just to name a few.

Under the Skin, based on the novel of the same name by Michel Faber, is the latest from director Jonathan Glazer, whose previous credits include such diverse fare as the film Sexy Beast and the music video for Jamiroquai's hit single Virtual Insanity.

Scarlett Johansson stars as an alien invader who eschews the more dramatic and traditional invasion method of blowing up the White House in favor of driving around Scotland in a van luring unsuspecting men into her clutches with the promise of sex. In reality, there's no sex to be had; it's all a ploy to pilfer the flesh of libidinous Scotsmen. It's a tempting trap; the alien looks exactly like Scarlett Johansson, and if Scar-Jo said she wanted skin, what man wouldn't agree to her request without fully comprehending the horrifying implications?

But all is not champagne wishes and skin fillet dreams for this extraterrestrial executioner. The more she hides behind her human form and the more she interacts with her unsuspecting quarry, the more humanity intrigues and troubles her. What was supposed to be just another ho-hum season of seducing, killing and skinning hitchhikers is suddenly complicated with, well, alien concepts like death, love and intimacy. The entirety of human civilization hasn't entirely figured those out yet, and we're from here; lots of luck if you're a skin-harvesting space creature that came here in a UFO.

Of course, it's even more difficult for a predatory space alien to gain insight into the human condition when another alien is hot on her tail. ...

Under the Skin infiltrates theaters disguised as an unassuming pastiche of tried and true sci-fi clichés. It waits until you've let your guard down, after you're seated, after the lights dim and the doors clank firmly shut behind you. That's when it reveals its true form, peeling off its sci-fi skin to reveal a film with way more heart and art to it than its kitschy premise would initially suggest.

UNDER THE SKIN, opens Friday, May 2, The Grand Cinema, 606 S. Fawcett, Tacoma, $4.50-$9, 253.593.4474

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