Jonathan Glazer, Under the Skin, 2014, digital video, color, sound, 108 minutes. Laura (Scarlett Johansson).

JONATHAN GLAZER’S first film since the majestic Birth (2004), Under the Skin also concerns the emergence of a new being, if a sinister one. A nameless alien, played by Scarlett Johansson in a black shag wig, lands in Scotland, where, with the help of a motocross-rider adjutant, she dons the togs of a woman found dead along the highway. The extraterrestrial expands her bare wardrobe of denim miniskirt and torn fishnets by making a trip to the mall, purchasing a fuchsia pullover with a plunging neckline, acid-wash jeans, a ratty fur jacket, and makeup. Thus attired in low-rent French Connection chic, she takes to the road in a white van, pulling over to ask random men for directions, then offering them a lift. The flirtation culminates in the disappearance—and later, complete disintegration—of her lustful prey, as they, naked and fully erect, follow this pneumatic beauty, herself in various states of undress, into a fathomless inky pool.

As a sensory experience, Under the Skin often astounds, its opening scene surpassing that of Birth (in which a jogger, his back to us, collapses under a bridge in a snow-blanketed Central Park, a shot immediately followed by a newborn, umbilical cord still attached). In the first few minutes of Glazer’s latest, a pinprick of light slowly expands, a nearly blinding whiteout accompanied by the sound of dissonant, furious strings. (The superb score is by Mica Levi.) This big bang ends with an extreme close-up of an eyeball filling the screen, recalling not only Keir Dullea’s orb (and his terrifying intergalactic travel) during the Star Gate sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey but also Catherine Deneuve’s at the start of Repulsion, another film in which lascivious men meet bad ends.

In fact, Under the Skin, whose script was cowritten by Glazer and Walter Campbell, freely adapting Michael Faber’s 2000 novel of the same name, works best conceptually not as a sci-fi parable but as a tweak of Johansson’s celebrity—specifically, of the talents of the twenty-nine-year-old actress that have been wolfishly dissected by Maxim and FHM for the past decade. Glazer had his lead, under that slatternly mop of dark hair, mingle among actual Glaswegians, few of whom—including the hapless fellows she solicits, in a Mayfair-ish accent, on the motorway—recognized Johansson. (Only two of these pickups were scripted and cast, as were two other men, one benevolent, one not; all of the nonprofessionals who appear in the film signed release forms.)

Purposely avoiding all coverage of Under the Skin (including Anthony Lane’s recent laddish, giddy profile of Johansson in the New Yorker) before viewing it, I wasn’t aware of this guerrilla gambit, carried out through a network of specially made, hidden cameras, until I read the press notes on the subway ride home. Initially, the strategy struck me as a bit cheap, but then I remembered my own chance encounter with the actress, seven years ago at the Whitney Museum. Wearing a fedora pulled down low—not unlike the one David Bowie sports at the end of Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, another touchstone for Glazer’s film—and clutching the hand of Ryan Reynolds, her boyfriend at the time, Johansson barely camouflaged herself, taking the risk that she would not be swarmed. (She wasn’t, at least among those of us checking out the Lorna Simpson exhibition, though we all gawked at her surreptitiously.) With minimal disguise, she takes a similar gamble for Glazer’s film, but this time, her allure is no longer presupposed but has to be proven. And in this, Johansson does some of her finest acting yet.

Melissa Anderson

Under the Skin opens in New York and Los Angeles on April 4.