Based on Michael Faber’s 2000 novel, Under the Skin is a compelling motion picture about discovering humanity from an alien point of view. Directed by Jonathan Glazer, this is one of the most authentic science fiction pictures out there. From the impeccable casting of Scarlett Johansson to the use of genuine encounters with non-actors, there’s something very special about this film.
Much of Under the Skin is admittedly rather nebulous, but most of it is quite straightforward for those with open minds. It’s a fever dream at times and an achingly beautiful tale at others, a vision and a nightmare all at once. There isn’t a lot of “information” to let the audience in to this picture and that’s likely to be a problem for some, but those willing to dig will surely reap rewards.
Johansson is a nameless figure “born” in a featureless void after a motorcyclist (Jeremy McWilliams) snags a body from a side of the road. The figure subsequently inhabits the body and seems to commence a mission that involves tooling around Scotland in a van trying to pick up men. For a “woman” who looks like Johansson, this isn’t much of a problem.
But for the hapless, often hilariously cocksure men, it is a problem. That’s because the figure’s intentions involve seducing them only to have them submerged in a pile of liquid. The victims lose everything but their skins and are drained to a distant light. As Johansson’s character mercilessly conducts her mission, she discovers more about humanity, kindness, and affection, and this transforms her very nature.
One could argue that Under the Skin is a picture about an alien becoming human. This is at least partly true. The alien has no impressions about humankind, only that there are tasks to be done. She picks up men with frankness and isn’t sure about any emotional content. She is pragmatic by nature because she knows no other way to be.
So when she witnesses a swimmer try to save a drowning couple and sees that the fool almost drowns himself in the process, she wordlessly wonders why. Why would someone do that? What’s the point? She doesn’t understand the human notion of giving of one’s self for another. This element, completely foreign to her, can only elude her for so long.
Later in the picture, Johansson’s character comes across a man with a facial disfigurement (Adam Pearson). He is lonely and has never known the caress of another human being because of how he looks. Before she knows it, the alien is expressing a form of compassion and, without giving anything away, serves as his liberator of sorts. He has no idea how lucky he is.
In the midst of this journey of discovery lies a certain winking humour. Under the Skin uses the idea of Scarlett Johansson roaming Scotland in a van to pick up men and theoretically shoves her in some awfully tricky situations. Men are routinely sized up by this quite literal Black Widow, presumably for their nutritional value or perhaps more accurately for how well they’ll satisfy the home planet.
She victimizes these men, however, and inflicts on them a form of psychosexual horror. Some she reveals more to, like the disfigured gentleman, but some only get as far as a bra before the terror commences and the drowning in sludge begins. This is all part of the madness of Under the Skin, of the ache of being a real, live, red-blooded man and literally sinking in lust.
With most of the characters played by non-actors, the contrast between Johansson and the rest of the group is part of what makes this picture remarkable. It’s a thought experiment of sorts because it delivers authenticity in spades. How would you react if Scarlett Johansson cruised up to you in a van looking for directions and asking you to touch her neck? You’d be up to your own in sludge in seconds.
Glazer's insistence on a naturalistic point of view keeps things grounded. Johansson's character is followed without judgment and without assessment. There's no point here in staging or in explaining. The view of the alien is blank, at least initially, and driven by coldness. This helps force the idea that Under the Skin is about something more, not just about pulling from scene to scene to determine the next move.
So many science fiction movies involve seeing an alien world from the human viewpoint. Under the Skin tilts the angle and does so in a way that is splendidly true and stunningly cruel. Glazer recognizes this as the basic thread of existence, a world forged in the clash between helping an alien Johansson up after she tumbles in the street and then raping her in the woods as her skin crawls off. Welcome to Earth.
The DVD release of Under the Skin includes a set of featurettes that explore everything from the camerawork to the performances. There are also some trailers.