Review – Under the Skin (dir. Jonathan Glazer, 2013)
In my mind, this movie has already earned a place in the canon of science fiction films. Under the Skin does what sci-fi does best: holds up a mirror to humanity and makes it alien. Like the best sci-fi, Under the Skin isn’t about far off worlds or people, but the ones that populate this earth. I don’t mean great sci-fi narratives have to be about Earth at all – far from it. Rather, after watching or reading great sci-fi, you look at our world differently, whether or not what you’ve just experienced had anything to do with this galaxy or another one entirely.
There are so many things to talk about with this movie, from the formal to the metaphoric and everything in between. In general I’m not even a Scarlett Johansson lover, but I was genuinely impressed by her performance here. Like, I suppose, many great movies, Under the Skin made me recall many others – the most obvious being 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – while maintaining its own identity. Like other great movies, the opening is unforgettable, laying all of the themes the film will tackle as it unfolds in its dreamy trajectory. Atmospheric, geometrical, abstract patterns cross the screen slowly. These images look vaguely organic, calling to mind both the astronomical and the microscopic. It’s unclear whether we are looking at massive orbs in space or cells splitting. To me, these shapes also bring to mind the imagery that pops up in Ken Russell’s Altered States (1980), when the main character hallucinates himself backwards through the evolutionary scale. As with that movie, the shapes bridge the vastness between space and inner body, in a way equating them.
If you go into this movie expecting any kind of resolution you will likely be bitterly disappointed; if you’re looking for an experience, you will leave the theater bewildered, but enlightened. (And I do recommend seeing this movie on the big screen while you still can.) Scarlett Johansson’s unnamed alien drives around Scotland picking up men, luring them in and disposing of them. You never get to find out why, but you can believe whatever you want – that Johansson’s alien species is capturing them for some kind of specimen study, that the whole enterprise is supporting an alien study of Earth’s gender norms. The latter may be more accurate.
While the protagonist of this film is an alien, this film is all about humanity, and the feminine, more specifically. Throughout the first half of the narrative, the unnamed alien temptress lures men using her sexuality. The turning point comes when she suddenly develops a sense of empathy. One of her victims seems burdened by a disorder that makes him resemble the elephant man. After a point in their interaction, the woman’s motives no longer seem clear (if they ever were). Rather than just the promise of sex, she offers companionship, closeness to another human being. Are her actions malicious, or somehow sincere? We never find out, but she doesn’t carry through with this particular ensnarement.
Following this experience, the woman’s cold exterior begins to crumble. Rather than being a predator, she slowly becomes a victim, until she appears to lose sense of herself entirely. Her humanity because equated with victimhood. A kindly man takes her in, but even he seems to take advantage of her, mistaking her disorientation and dependence on him for sexual consent. Finally, she is explicitly assaulted by a different man. Her skin begins to peel, revealing a dark foreign body underneath. A complex metaphor of “otherness” emerges.
What do feminine and possibly racial otherness have to do with the cosmos and microcosmos that open the film? The connection is one I can’t even begin to explain fully. Perhaps that the institutions of sexism and racism are so deeply engrained that they even affect non-humans is the deepest tragedy of this film – that we are born into structures of power we cannot escape, and that these invisible structures are real enough to entrap a woman from another world. There’s also a way the whole outcome seems cyclical and inescapable. In the very beginning of the film, Johansson’s character pulls clothes off an another female who looks remarkably like her, as though she has briefly resurrected to relive her short life over and over.
I recommend seeing this film for yourself. Like any dream experience, it’s hard to put the pieces back together after the fact, and it’s impossible to describe in a meaningful way to another person. In the end, all that’s left are the traces that linger when we wake up, though we continue to carry them with us throughout the day.