Director: Jonathan Glazer
Screenwriters: Jonathan Glazer, Walter Campbell
Based on the book “Under The Skin” by Michel Faber
Music Score: Mica Levi
Cinematography: Daniel Landy
Editor: Paul Watts
Cast: Scarlett Johansson and a few men (some of them non-professional actors).
The film begins with an abstract montage of the assembly of an artificial orb, while a voice in the background goes through vocalizations, as if learning English pronunciation. The orb turns into a human eye.
The story is set in Scotland. A motorcyclist carries the body of a young woman. In a white void-like room, the young woman is being disrobed by a doppelganger, who puts on the clothes. The latter notices something of interest in the dead woman and it’s nothing about her in particular but an ant that was crawling off the body. The doppelganger is the movie’s protagonist, the girl.
The girl goes to a mall and observes women in a beauty shop. She puts makeup on herself and drives around in a van. Soon her purpose is revealed: She is looking for men to lure to sex. At her domicile, we discover there’s a long black void-like room, far larger than should fit into the building from the outside. She lures in the transfixed male marks as she walks backwards and disrobes, while they walk into a pool of black liquid unaware until they are submerged. After the victims dip, the girl walks over the pool as if its solid ground, turns off her allure and just mechanically walks on collecting her clothes.
The girl goes on the prowl with perfunctory precision. While she looks out for possible targets from inside her van, she’s completely robotic, but turns on the charm when engaging the prey. Her method is to engage isolated men and use the excuse of asking for directions and then offers a lift to their destination. One of her marks is a swimmer who, while talking to her, notices that a couple is in trouble in the water as the tide is pushing them toward the sea when they tried to save their dog. The swimmer saves the husband but then later tries again to go save the wife. The girl brains the swimmer with a rock and carries him to her van, while the couple’s baby child cries, unnoticed by the girl. The couple is lost to the waves, and the baby is left abandoned. The dead swimmer is carried to the house. Later, the motorcyclist arrives to beach to collect the clothes of the missing couple, and perhaps, the baby himself as well.
In one scene the girl almost loses control of the situation, since her intended mark is not isolated and goes to a public place, which she tries to avoid, but is pushed on by a gang of girls who are on a night-out. The girls take her to a packed dance pub where the man who was to be her mark actively hits on her hard. He ends up in the dip as well. This character provides us with a view of what is happening inside the black pool, where the men there are sucked of their internals until only their skins remain afloat. Somewhere near the pool, a shutter flushes reddish goo to a destiny unknown.
The girl views the world with utter detachment; a predator looking at its possible preys as little more than objects. She is checked by the motorcyclist, who we now understand is one of her own and possibly her controller or overseer.
Things start to change for the girl such as random acts of kindness from men. Her turning point, however, is after she meets a meek man suffering from neurofibromatosis. For the first time, the girl meets a man who doesn’t treat her merely as a sex object and his shy nature is a contrast to the openly sexual predatory actions of her other marks. The girl has to actively turn her charm to the max and even create a connection to the meek man to actively seduce him instead of her usual passive seductions. She takes him to a black room where he also goes to the dip, but not before she has to convince him more than the usual. As she leaves, she looks at her own reflection and for the first time, she reacts with emotion to her own reflection. Something is changing in her.
She releases the meek man, and drives away, seemly running away from her peers. The meek man is, however, soon located and captured by the motorcyclist. The girl drives until she stops in the middle of a fog. She leaves the van and walks away. The motorcyclist and two others go looking for her, driving about the region.
The attempts to act human, like eating a chocolate cake, go terribly wrong. Walking about, she is advised by a man to take a bus that is soon to arrive. She meekly complies. It’s quite obvious now that the girl is lost and scared. The nice man who she met at the bus station takes pity on her and asks her if she needs help, which she accepts. He takes her to go shopping for food for her and takes her home, where he makes her a meal and offers a room to stay. The girl tries to get comfortable with her human body and she lets herself be seduced by the nice man, but an occasion of sexual intercourse with him spooks her and she leaves.
Heading to a forest, a logger points to a cabin that can be used as a shelter for the rain that’s pouring. While in the cabin she tries to sleep but is assault by the logger. The huntress becomes the hunter, she flees, terrified. She finds a log lorry and hones for help, but it’s the logger’s lorry so she’s again on the run and is quickly captured. The logger tries to rape her again, but in the struggle, he tears up her skin and runs away scared. The girl knowing that her camouflage is now compromised removes her human skin and we get a good look at her true self. The skin in her hands, however, seems to be alive and looks back at her. But her torment is not over yet.
Under The Skin is director’s Jonathan Glazer third film, after Sexy Beast and Birth. And each movie couldn’t be more different from the others. It is a short, but eclectic, filmography.
The trailers for Under The Skin gave the movie a certain Kubrickian vibe, but watching the film itself, the filmmaker I was reminded the most was actually Werner Herzog. If Herzog had made a science fiction movie, especially in the 1970s, this would very probably be what it would look like.
And speaking of the 1970s, that’s the decade that the movie seems to invoke or remind the viewer as one is watching it. Under The Skin could had been a refuge from the science fiction made in that decade, so much it owns that visual style, slow paced editing, and a determination to never openly explain what is happening onscreen, leaving all the viewer to come to their own conclusions.
The look of the film is something that will do the Scotland Board of Tourism no favors. A perpetual darkly moody atmosphere permeates the film from start to finish. Constant overcast skies and rainy weather is a prevalent, and that’s in the city scenes. The country scenes make for an even more sparse and gloomy look. And then there’s the fact that everybody, the humans seen in the film, seems to inhabit in a frozen time zone where the fashions and the look of the cars and the housings has not yet left the 80s or the 90s. Is the story supposed to be set in those decades, or is today’s Scotland still stuck in those decades as far fashion is concerned? It’s anybody’s guess.
One element in the film that is never explained is if the girl at the beginning, of which her doppelganger is the film’s protagonist, was a human from whom the latter took her shape and form, or if it was a previous alien huntress who died out while on the prowl. It’s left to the viewer to decide. And that is not a bad thing. The way I see it, a movie either go by providing detailed explanations that are consistent and logical to the film’s own internal logic, or let it all to subtext and let the viewer come to his own independent conclusions. No dumbed down half-measures, please. Under The Skin goes for the latter. I like that.
One interesting element in the movie, which seems to be a deliberate choice, is that Scarlett Johansson is the only attractive member of the cast. The rest of the people in the movie are just average looking or even ugly people. And not just the cast but also the extras and the people seen walking about the streets and the countryside. Scarlett’s beauty makes for a great contrast, and is used by the film as a means to visualize her sexual huntress capabilities. And even then, Scarlett is not glamorized in a typical Hollywood fashion. This actress, constantly seen as one of Hollywood’s most beautiful and glamorous actress, downplays her sexiness in the movie, going for a darker unflattering hair-do, minimal make up and banal dresses. Still the image is of the world’s most beautiful girl, but in this movie’s universe, even that is not glamourized and darkly moody.
The character played by Scarlett only interacts with males. There isn’t a single sequence in the film where she shares any dialogue or even a moment with a female character. This interesting detail in the story further helps not only to portray the alien and predatory nature of the huntress, but also avoid an easy pitfall, which would be to have her gain a connection to humans through a female character. A lazier film would go that route, to make her to be in contact with her female side. But the thing is, she is an alien, why would she have a female side or whatever passes as for female in her own race? No, the huntress gains a connection, or attempts one, to humans through the very people who were once her own prey: the men. It provides for a better narrative challenge and a welcomed one. A potential cliché thankfully avoided.
And the plot plays on irony. At first, dispassionate and robotic in hunting them, she becomes confused by an unexpected moment of empathy that leads her to be on the run from her on species. She tries to fit in as a human, but all her attempts fail since she is not able to understand even the most basic mechanisms of human interaction besides her sexual predatory skills. And later, the final ironic twist, she becomes a prey of a sexual predator herself. Is the movie doing a take that on the girl character, making her suffer the fate she once set upon her victims? Or has the movie deliberately built up sympathy for the girl and puts her in danger to play to our conflicted emotions about her? The film itself does not provide an open interpretation and it’s to each viewer to reach his or her own conclusion. Karma catching up or tragedy, you decide.
When the girl is shown as a huntress, we always see her dressed with a fur coat, but after she saves the meek man, the coat is gone, as if to symbolize vulnerability to the character and as a shedding of a skin layer. It’s probably the only instance of the movie where it almost goes literal in the way it depicts the character.
There are not many special effects in the movie. They are limited to very few scenes, but they are very effective. Three special effects really stand out. The first is the depiction of the two identical girls when the protagonist is undressing her lookalike. Next, are the visuals depicting the strange pool where the girl lures her victims, one of the strangest images put to film, and the special effects live up to the intended strangeness.
The next effect that stands out is the depiction of the skin of the human prey left afloat after being sucked out of their innards. The photo-realism of the effect and the long shot of seeing it floating about create a disturbing effect as the camera linger on it for an unusual long shot. The latter occurrence is when we finally get to see the huntress’ real self under her human skin and her living skin. It’s simple but extremely effective in showing the alieness of the character we have had for the protagonist throughout the movie.
The film score is made of strange unusual atonal music which helps establish the alieness of the main character and, in the first half, her robotic efficiently in her hunting. Later, when the huntress tires her hand at being a human, the music goes for a more melodic theme, but it’s still one of dissonance sounds in the middle of a melody, again representing that no matter how much she tries to be human, she is an alien, now lost in two irreconcilable worlds. Composer Mica Levi created an unusual, sometimes hard to follow, but so appropriate score that fits the movie like a second skin, no pun intended.
And by the way, yes, Scarlett Johansson does get naked. But there is something clinical in the way she is depicted naked. While still very appealing to the gaze, there is a detachment to it that prevents it from being seen as mere exploitative. Again, it is reminiscent of how often open-nakedness was shown in films from the late 60s and the 70s. Another throwback element this movie shares with the films of those decades.
Personally, I liked this movie quite a lot. I can’t help but see this movie as part of a small invasion of throwback films made recently that invoke the style of films made since the late 60s to the early 80s. This strange, slow paced rich in subtext films in which deliberately leave to the viewer to make their own interpretations with little guiding hand. I put Under The Skin together with films such as Beyond The Black Rainbow, Valhalla Rising and Only God Forgives. Each of those films is very different from the others, but it’s hard not to see some kinship among them, especially concerning their uncompromising style. Those films do not just want you to watch them, but dare you to watch them. And I love a dare like that.
I would be hard-pressed to recommend this movie. I want to recommend everybody to watch it, but even if I liked it quite a lot I’m aware that this is not a film for everybody’s tastes. The film might even prove divisive to those who would be attracted to this type of film, much more so to those more used to a blockbuster diet. But there is always a chance that the film might appeal to those who might be interested in tasting something different for a change, looking for counter-programming from the usual commercial film fare. Who knows if for somebody out there, this movie might be an entry point to a different kind of cinema and opens a perception of just how much more can be there for cinema than just the usual cinematic choices. For many of us, cinema opened up its possibilities and we discovered a great world of cinema because we once took a chance in watching something that was out of our usual tastes and comfort zone.
Also, this movie made me eager to rewatch The Man Who Fell To Earth, a movie I dearly love, and that is a good thing, if you ask me.
This is Asimovlives, signing off. Have a better one.