Under the Skin is a movie I was very interested in seeing ever since I saw the trailer. Between Scarlett Johansson starring as an alien, a director who’s been judged by some as the next Kubrick, and the beautifully abstract visuals in the trailer, I knew I couldn’t miss it. This is a very special film. It’s one of those super pretentious art films that I hate at first because I don’t understand it, but eventually grow to love after turning around in my mind for a few weeks.
Scarlett Johansson plays an unnamed alien that drives around Scotland in a white van, picking up dudes, and then destroying them in some obscure and abstract way. The film begins with her “birth,” again shown in abstraction. She then ends up on earth and steals a human’s clothes, then embarks upon her odyssey of seduction. She makes sure to find out men without family or friends, then takes them to abandoned buildings. The plot doesn’t feel like it has an overall objective, but the events that transpire change the main character greatly. She goes from being a stone cold killer to someone questioning her purpose and exploring life, to a victim on the run. This is at least how I saw the film; undoubtedly many interpretations can result from individual viewings. While the beginning of the film gets a little repetitive, each time Johansson seduces someone we see more and more of exactly what happens to him. Things get more varied in the second half as the alien starts questioning things. She gets pushed into a nightclub and is very off balance, but manages to recover. She picks up a deformed guy but lets him go. She lives with another guy for a considerable period of time before running away. Additionally, a mysterious motorcyclist is following Johansson for reasons that are never revealed.
Glazer uses two very different styles of filming to differentiate between the “human” scenes and the “alien” scenes. The human ones are very realistic; filmed for the most part with hidden cameras on location in Scotland. From a viewer’s perspective it’s sometimes difficult to tell who is an actor and who is a “real person.” Things are shot at strange angles and actors seem very unaware as to where the camera is. However, once Johannson gets to seducing people things look completely different. There is no dialogue, music takes center stage. There is only empty black space surrounding the actors, no sense of the earthly world at all. This discrepancy between styles results in an even stronger contrast between the human and the alien. Humans cannot really imagine what is going on with the alien, so it makes sense that it would be presented abstractly and ambiguously.
As one can probably guess just from the theme an alien seducing people and destroying them, one can get a lot of feminist analysis out this film. Other than Johansson, females only figure into the film twice. They are both towards the beginning when the alien steals the woman’s clothes and during the nightclub scene. While all of the seduction scenes are shown in black space, when Johansson steals the woman’s clothes it is shown in white space. I’m not exactly sure what this signifies, but clearly a contrast is set up between male and female here. During the nightclub scene, the alien practically gets kidnapped by a group of drunk women going out to party. She just gets swept up in the tide of wanton pleasure seeking. In the first instance the women is seen as a victim while in the second the women are more predatory. This reverses Johansson’s own progression throughout the film. I understand that this paragraph isn’t very concrete, but the point is that there’s some interesting questions relating to feminism surrounding this film, so if you are into that sort of thing I would definitely recommend it.
While by some standards it is hard to praise Scarlett Johansson’s performance because she does not have to emote much, I still have to give her props for the work she does here. First of all, I think it takes a certain amount of guts for a mainstream actor to appear in such a strange and artsy film, so good for her for putting herself out there and taking the role in the first place. Second, she’s playing an alien, a being that hasn’t been exposed to human emotions or their modes of expression for very long. Of course she’s going to play the role differently than most. Third, you can tell a lot about her character through her actions. To continue the comparison to Kubrick, there’s one scene here that really reminded me of another in a completely different context in Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. The acting style is primarily made up of small actions rather than dialogue or facial expressions. This is most apparent in Under the Skin in a simple scene where Johansson’s character falls to the ground. The passersby all stop to help her up, and she moves to stiffly like she is uncomfortable in her own body. She’s also not used to people touching her or offering help. She offers no expression, but just the way she moves her shoulders and doesn’t express her emotions in a normal human way speaks volumes.
Another fantastic aspect about this film is its score and sound design. Especially towards the beginning of the film, the sounds are strangely amplified or altered. I’m not sure exactly how to describe it, but suffice it to say they don’t sound normal. This clearly brings you into the way Johansson’s alien is hearing a world strange and foreign to her. The score is actually the thing that I most appreciated the film upon first seeing it. I wasn’t too sure about much else, but I knew the score was fantastic. It’s mostly strings, which I’m predisposed towards anyway, and it moves in and out of dissonance it a wonderfully creepy way. It signifies how comfortable the alien is in the world; sometimes she is and sometimes she isn’t and it’s constantly shifting and changing. The film was originally to be without music until the final moments, after the alien is played a record and knows what music is, but this decision was eventually reversed which was definitely the right call. The score was composed by Mica Levi, and this is her only film score. I hope this changes in the future.
Under the Skin is probably not for everybody, but if you like a challenge I would definitely recommend it. I can see a lot of people getting very frustrated with this film, and I was initially, but in a good way. I can’t wait to see it again at some point and try to wring some more meaning from it, because I definitely think it is there.
“Do you think I’m pretty?”
Long story short: 4/4 stars
For Further Reading:
New York Times review
A Cinematic Odyssey review
Great review. I was turning this one over in my mind for days too. I loved the contrast between the surreal and the very real and the score added a vivid atmosphere. The scene by the ocean was cold and horrifying – I won’t forget that in a while.
It is a pretty challenging film, but ultimately very rewarding.
The contrast between real and surreal was beautifully done and very drastic. Definitely made a great effect.
That ocean scene was pretty intense, same with the one at the end.
Thanks for commenting!