Jonathan Glazer’s captivating sci-fi thriller explores what it really means to be human.
Two planets slide silently past each other. A woman recites words in alphabetical order, feeling her way through each syllable. An eye, human or otherwise, stares forth unblinkingly. Under The Skin’s abstract opening sequence reads like an ode to Stanley Kubrick. Much like 2001: A Space Odyssey, it delves inside the human psyche and pulls out whatever it finds. Under The Skin is an inspection of the inner workings of the human species, and it doesn’t shy away from our ugly side.
Scarlett Johansson’s alien seductress comes to earth and preys on men. In a fur coat and vivid red lipstick, she could have stepped straight out of a Hitchcock thriller. There’s no doubt about it, Johansson’s alien visitor looks utterly iconic. Although she tries to look the part, she is still otherworldly. She has a robotic, purposeful gait. She is an imitation of a human and her studies of the Glaswegian public confirm it- she is not one of them. Everything she has learned about humanity has come from theory- in order to truly fit in, she must put it into practice.
The alien begins picking up men in her white van. She makes small talk, and lets the first few go on their way. Then she begins her real work. She bewitches her victims and lures each of them back to a decrepit house. She is a venus fly trap, and they are the flies. The men are consumed by a black liquid, of which Johansson walks on the surface. This happens a few times, and although these sequences have been criticised for being repetitive, Glazer’s execution of them is excellent. He introduces a sense of horror, not through gore, but through a bewildering surrealism. With each victim, the alien removes more of her clothes, until she is naked. This subtle progression marks a change in the alien- she starts to become more human.
The turning point comes when Johansson picks up a lone man, late at night. Once in the van, he is revealed to be severely disfigured. The alien does something unexpected- she takes pity on him. She feels that most human of traits- compassion. Johansson’s gait changes- she walks smoothly, fluidly, and she trips on the street. She meets a kindly stranger who takes her in. Each of these small experiences, these brushes with human compassion, begin to change her. She no longer sees humans simply as prey- she begins to admire them.
Johansson’s performance here is remarkable. The change in her character is nuanced- although she becomes more human, she is still not one of us.She comes to earth as a predator, but she is as vulnerable as any one of us. We begin her journey feeling scared of her and by the time it’s over, we are scared for her.
Glazer deserves the praise that has been heaped upon him. He is a visionary. Under The Skin is as apt a title as any because if we examine this film only at its simplest level, we would gain nothing from it. On its surface, Under The Skin is an abstract, arty sci-fi which is big on visuals and light on dialogue. But look deeper and we find a study on humanity. Its subtlety is part of its brilliance- there are many questions which are unanswered, but the important ones are the ones that are asked. Under The Skin is a small film which tackles big questions. What we get is an outside look at our own species- warts and all.
★ ★ ★ ★ ★