We’ve written about Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin a few times, but we never actually got around to reviewing the esoteric sci-fi film. Now that it has hit the home video market, complete with plenty of nude shots of Scarlett Johansson, it’s time to rectify that situation. A few words on spoilers. Not all that much happens in this movie—at least, not by conventionally measurable means, but there’s a lot going on under the surface, which the title hints at. If you’re looking for a traditional Hollywood blockbuster, alien invasion movie, this is the wrong movie.
Based on Michael Faber’s novel, and directed and co-written by Glazer, who also helmed the awesome Sexy Beast, Under the Skin is slow and visually luxurious—though it’s easy to imagine some viewers tearing their hair out. There are long, lingering shots, and 5, 10, even 15-minute stretches with no dialogue. Sometimes this made me wonder what I was missing, and every now and again I was unsure what the hell was going on, but overall the aesthetics adds to the ambience, which is perfect for a story about an alien trying to navigate humanity. The overcast, rainy Scottish setting provides a compelling atmosphere as well. If I’d have eaten a special brownie, it would have been perfect.
The action starts with Johansson learning to enunciate, even though most humans don’t even bother with that. A man on a motorcycle—or an alien on a motorcycle who appears to be some kind of watcher—strips the clothes off of another female alien. She sheds a tear as ScarJo gets dressed her in duds. The first female alien has perhaps become too human and is being replaced. There’s a shot of a spaceship lifting away, so clearly the aliens have been left on Earth to do…something.
That something is seducing men and processing their bits into a usable substance. Motorcycle guy provides ScarJo with a van, which she uses to go shopping, buying a fur coat and make-up to blend in. She begins picking up unsuspecting men—quite literally unsuspecting, as they didn’t even know they were being filmed until they were later asked to sign consent forms. She brings them back to an apartment, casts off her clothes, and lures her victims into a pool of black liquid where they disappear. In the trippiest scene in the movie, one of her conquests disintegrates into ribbons and parts that then disappear down a red tunnel. ScarJo’s character is a bit like the succubus version of Cloak, who spirits enemies into a dark dimension, but the viewer never really learns more about what the aliens are doing with the men. She has a few other adventures, but also a lot of quotidian human moments, including the one that generated the popular meme of ScarJo falling.
Johansson’s acting is really quite good. While she’s clearly beautiful, she also successfully pulls off other-worldliness, mostly using her eyes. Even without much dialogue, you can tell she’s changing, becoming more human, which also means being disoriented and afraid. The more human she becomes, the more at risk she is. Despite her best efforts, fitting in is not in the cards. She is suspended between her human and alien selves, with her own kind pursuing her across the countryside.
ScarJo’s journey illustrates how much humans suck, I guess. It’s not a new theme, but it’s effectively delivered here in a visual package that was entirely new to me. While I can totally see people being bored and/or mystified by Under the Skin, if interesting, artistic sci-fi is your thing, or if you enjoy movies that don’t telegraph every last element, I would recommend seeing it (though seriously, don’t forget the brownie). Regardless, we should totally be nicer to aliens.