The opening sentence of HG Wells's The War of the Worlds suggests that aliens may have been watching human society "as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water". Jonathan Glazer's much-delayed follow-up to Birth (2004) wonders what would happen if such an alien developed sympathy for those "transient creatures".
It does other things. Working experimentally on the streets of Glasgow, Glazer seeks to put us in the brain (if it has such a thing) of the icy protagonist and make the ordinary world forbiddingly alien. The English director – whose first feature, Sexy Beast , announced a rare cinematic talent 13 years ago – uses an extraordinary abstract score by Mica Levi to fully immerse the viewer in a foreign consciousness.
Glazer is asking a great deal. We should not, perhaps, be surprised that Under the Skin divided audiences at its premiere in Venice. But so rigorous and singular is Glazer's technique that it is hard to believe the film will not register with future audiences as a classic of its era.
Under the Skin begins with a glossy sequence that looks to have something to do with docking spacecraft, but ultimately involves the implanting of an alien consciousness into a human host. Played by Scarlett Johansson in a deadened trance that recalls Nicole Kidman's torpor in Birth, this creature has been dispatched to capture stray citizens and lure them to mysterious, oily doom.
The film’s key theme is announced early on when Johansson stares curiously at a lone ant that has wondered onto a body. Sometime later, in a scene that has stirred controversy, she will look with similar disengagement at an apparently doomed child. But a meeting with one lonely soul eventually stirs a degree of empathy.
The film's most notable innovation is to send Johansson about the streets of Glasgow and follow her surreptitiously with hidden cameras. The experiment is entirely successful. Our familiarity with the star's celebrity greatly enhances the sense of an alien abroad. Nic Roeg used David Bowie similarly in The Man Who Fell to Earth, but the juxtaposition with ordinary Glaswegian shoppers makes Scarlett – stonewashed jeans and fake fur only marginally dimming her glamour – seem even further adrift than the Thin White Duke.
Glazer and Walter Campbell, his co-writer, adapted the script from Michel Faber's 2000 novel. Showing a willingness to deviate from source that is all too rare these days, they have dropped the book's exposition and told their story entirely from the protagonist's often-puzzled perspective.
For all the occasional outbreaks of ambiguity, Under the Skin is nowhere near as oblique as some early reports have pretended. We are not entirely sure why Johansson's victims are being smothered in viscous fluid and melted into glowing mush. The chain of command between the alien and her biker superiors is a little unclear.
The drift of the plot is, however, always easy to grasp. After disobeying orders, she wanders away from the city and makes a futile attempt to go native. (Both chocolate cake and Tommy Cooper prove difficult to digest.)
As that journey continues, Glazer’s confident mesh of suave style and eerie content becomes ever more impressive. A former commercials director, he allows himself more than a few bravura shots: a motorbike travelling across a wide screen; foam kicking up from an angry sea; a man atop one of Caspar David Friedrich’s mountains. But the director always keeps his eye on his heroine’s hopeless odyssey.
A truly extraordinary trick has been pulled off: Under the Skin manages to foster empathy with an entity as isolated from human experience as an avalanche or a weather system. Such achievements tend to allow films to be classed as masterpieces. That word may not be too weighty for Glazer's towering curio.