Under The Skin is pure, distilled cinema. The premise for the film is simply an alien who inhabits a women’s body and then lures men into darkness and death. If that sounds like a stupid slasher sci/fi horror movie then you would be mistaken. Scarlett Johansson plays the alien being and next to Lost In Translation, this is her best performance. She doesn’t speak — it’s her facial expressions that helps move the story and character along. She’s shown in places with humans and looks out of place as if she is baffled and doesn’t understand anything going on. Well, she doesn’t.
Then there are also times when she is in her element and we as the audience are baffled. This film is an experiment of voyeurism. I’d explain it as a Sci-Fi B monster movie made by David Cronenberg and in the spirit of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Under The Skin reminds us that film is a visual medium at its heart.
As the film opens a group of men on motorcycles appear to be the male aliens and help her with her mission. The film keeps them in the peripherals, and lets the mythology of the world build without explanation. It has a sense of mystery that Sci-Fi is known for, but there’s also dark horror elements that reach into intangible ideas.
Casting Scarlett Johansson, a superstar actress, has meaning here. As audiences we observe her as typically beautiful characters on the screen, but that’s not really her. It’s a fake character and on one level this is what Glazer is after. How audiences perceive people of higher status and star power is idol worship. They are not what people think they are. They’re an unattainable object. The alien’s skin is objectified by men and the viewers. They don’t care what’s underneath, they only acknowledge her beauty. In Under the Skin voyeurism is a hall of mirrors. The men she lures objectify her which is a critique from Glazer on the audience about we are objectifying the alien.
AS a cinematic work, Glazer is after a Kubrick or Kieslowski-esque trancelike state where we watch images be pieced together and ideas emerge through their relationships. At first you aren’t even sure what’s happening, but if you use your intuition you’re probably right. Lend yourself over to it and you’ll be swept up in the soundscapes and atmosphere of alienation and loneliness. Since the film ended I have begun to piece it together like a dream I’ve awoken from.
Jonathan Glazer soaks the film in rain and darkness a la Blade Runner. When he uses colors they pop on the screen and demand attention. The sound design helps to create an eerie and unsettling mood. Glazer lingers on shots and then uses a scythe to cut to another image and the result is unsettling. The film’s loose structure adheres mostly to the noir film as we follow the femme fatale around as she brings men to their doom. Perhaps repetitive and a tad literal, but the trance and commitment is never broken. Glazer’s (one of them at least) goal is to create a layer to the film that deals with female sexuality and man’s desire which holds him from ever attaining what he wants — and it’s a graduate level paper.
As the alien (named Laura apparently) drives around looking for prey, Glazer put hidden cameras in the car. This allowed Scarlett to actually interact with real people; adding a dynamic sense of realism to the film that makes it feel documentary-like and gives the moments an emotional texture.
The alien brings men back to a house and as they enter the room darkness surrounds them. The alien uses her body to enchant the men as the sink into nothingness. The images during these scenes are terrifying, yet also weirdly hypnotic. Visually it’s an instantly iconic creation that reminds one of 2001’s Monolith. When she traps the men it’s a fascinating visual metaphor of the male gaze. One particular scene where she traps a man is so uncomfortable and terrifying that I wanted to look away. I was as scared as I’ve been in a theater in a long time. This is what my face looked like.
And the alien doesn’t lure these men and then violently beat them up or anything. It’s calmly done through visuals. Told mostly through visuals, the story may lose some resonance and reliability on an accessibility level for the first viewing, but of course this film isn’t built for a single viewing. The film is entirely original in mood, but it also works as an homage to Kubrick, Bergman and Cronenberg. As the alien’s mission goes on she begins to question it. She wants to understand humanity. She knows nothing of the human race and this is the most obvious emotional entry point. You get to see an objective being examine the human race and in doing that we learn about ourselves and our own cosmic standing. Glazer’s refusal to create relatability is the point. The viewer’s voyeursitic gappling with the mystery of this woman is essential to understanding the alienation and loneliness of one’s existence.
The film slightly drags after the middle portion because the alien has changes her motivations. We watch as the alien transforms from an it to a her. The film then becomes about young women growing and becoming aware of their body and its power over men.
Her mission begins to change her and she begins to feel a sense of loneliness and isolation. What is her purpose exactly and can she become human? Wtf even is a human? Be warned that it’s not for everybody. This is the nature of a cinematic art film. It’s about provoking feelings and mood in you, and when it works, it’s profound. Glazer has most certainly done that here.
The film pits the outsider against humanity and we watch as it observes and wonders if it’s possible to become one of us. But then what does it even mean to be a human? The film makes the case that humanity is beyond flesh, blood, bones, and organs. Ultimately I think this is just the film’s jumping off point to grab onto even further ideas. I believe that underneath it is about trying to understand and identify with the unknowable questions of our existence, and all the questions that come with it. The fear of the unknown is the most terrifying thing imaginable and the films voyeurism forces the audience to grapple with them. Under The Skin is an ethereal experience of sight and sound that’s unforgettable if you let it take over you.
We can fawn over the incredible meld of horror, sci-fi, and thriller qualities, but I think it’s something entirely new in tone. It’s about identity — specifically a woman’s identity — and the longing to take control of it, if at all. This is metaphorically shown in the alien being stuck in a women’s body to seduce men. It’s a body that doesn’t feel like hers and is constantly objectified. Glazer’s ideas are painted methodically on the screen as Scarlett walks through earth. As the film comes to a close you aren’t entirely sure what all of it meant, but your mind races and heart pounds. The final shot lingers and there’s an infinite sense of sadness, horror, and understanding.
Grade: A we can begin to discuss its status as a classic immediately