under the skin

An alien that’s taken the form of a beautiful woman (played by Scarlett Johansson) roves Scotland in a white van. She picks up various men, seduces them, and then kidnaps them. They are put into some kind of preservative fluid and their interiors removed until they are horrifyingly hollow skins. The alien watches humanity with a disinterested lack of comprehension. She goes about her grisly duty while paying no heed to the wailing of an abandoned young child. But one encounter jars loose her worldview, and suddenly the alien begins changing. She looks at herself in the mirror and contemplates what she sees. She experiences emotion for the first time, and experiments with genuine human connection. All of which earns the disapproval of her handler, a fellow alien in the guise of a motorcyclist, and which is also taking her down an irrevocable path towards destruction.

Whatever image you have in your head when reading the description of Under the Skin‘s plot is likely quite removed from what the movie itself actually is. This is one of those films where the story takes a back seat to the experience. As in, if this movie were a limo, the experience would be in the driver’s seat, and the story would be running behind the car, trying to catch up. In fact, much of what this review describes is not readily apparent for much of the running time, leaving the unprepared viewer at a near-total loss as to what might be going on. But that doesn’t matter at all, since the feeling that the film works over the audience is what’s important.

The best way to describe Under the Skin is that it truly works to seem as though one is watching the world through the eyes of an alien. The Scottish accents are nigh-on impossible, making communication difficult. Sounds are processed through a muffling effect. Shadows drench so much of the frame. When the alien draws in her prey, the film switches to a symbolic point of view, depicting the men heedlessly trudging into deeper and deeper black liquid while the alien, always backing away from them, stands Christlike on the surface. When the alien begins to get in touch with humanity, there’s a shift from cold observation to sharper confusion.

All of this is channeled into Johansson’s superb performance. She is unearthly, poised like a lure on the end of an anglerfish. Men cannot help but be drawn in. As she looks at one and turns her legs inward shyly, a vulnerable look, it’s clearly a studied gesture, like a human testing an animal mating ritual. But it works every time, because every man can only follow his groin. Sex is one of the foremost things on the movie’s mind, though it’s erotic in an entirely intellectual way most of the time. The nudity is explicit but as matter-of-fact as the aliens going about their work. But when things start to change, Johansson introduces hesitancy, uncertainties, and curiosity into her body language. While saying very little, she conveys endless complexities.

Director Jonathan Glazer, known for commercial and music video work, has commanded a production that has laser-like precision in every artistic element. Every shot is exact, every cut in the edit has purpose. The sound work is unbelievable. One sequence uses the popping of a blank record as the sound of a submerged man having the last of his innards drawn out of him. Nigel Albermaniche, Steve Browell and their crew have done exemplary work. The score, by British musician Mica Levi, is terrifying all on its own and hugely evocative when stitched into the film. Harsh strings imbue every scene with palpable danger. Everything about this film is Kubrickian in its devising, and I don’t just make that comparison because the opening is a riff of sorts on the star gate scene from 2001.

Under the Skin is one of the best movies of the year, though it’s likely to go unappreciated by most. It is strange, scary, beautiful, and intriguing, just like its enigmatic main character. It is not for anyone seeking a conventional narrative. But if you’re in the mood to probe the idea of the human body as a mass of sensory riddles (that may or may not have answers), then look no further.