Our world through alien eyes...
WARNING: MAJOR PLOT SPOILERS
A beautiful woman (Scarlett Johansson) seduces random men off the street and lures them to their doom. She is closely monitored in her activities by a mysterious and ruthless man on a motorcycle (Jeremy McWilliams) who treats her like property, as would a pimp; but they are not human, this odd couple, only playing at it. Something cold and otherworldly moves beneath their skin. The precise nature of their mission on Earth is never specified and, like most everything else in this striking and challenging film, is left open to viewer interpretation.
Based on the novel by Michel Faber, Under the Skin has divided critical opinion, with some commentators dismissing it as pointless and impenetrable, and others hailing it as a masterpiece. Certainly it is unique; a bizarre yet gratifying clash of Kubrickian precision and a gritty naturalism more identifiable with the work of Mike Leigh or Ken Loach. Plot plays second fiddle to disturbingly beautiful imagery, which evokes themes of urban alienation, isolation, sexual identity, humanity, and compassion.
This is also a film about alien abduction, and – intentionally or not – the abduction scenarios it depicts are remarkably similar in certain respects to those reported in real-life abductee accounts, despite the absence of little Grey aliens or flying saucers (although lights in the sky do feature early on). Johansson, a succubus of sorts (although she never actually has sex with any of her victims), lures her men into various dilapidated buildings wherein they submit entirely to her desire. Mystifyingly, upon entering these seemingly normal urban spaces and shedding their clothes, the men find themselves in a distinctly alien environment and submerged in a strange dense liquid. Abductees often have reported moving inexplicably and seamlessly from an earthly environment to an alien one. In the film, Johansson’s alien leads her men into what appear to be earthly structures, but which inside are surely alien spacecraft, or an alien dimension of some sort. In one abduction scene a man with a neurofibromatosis disfigurement (Adam Pearson) remarks to his naked seducer: “I’m dreaming.” Given his situation and surroundings, certainly he has no reason to believe otherwise. Many abductees have described their experiences as being dreamlike, and yet clearly distinct from a dream.
The aliens here are hostile insomuch as they abduct humans and – but for one exception – never return them. The abductees’ fate is a grisly one, never fully explained in the movie but made clear in Faber’s source material (clue: they’re a delicacy). But describing the aliens in Under the Skin as ‘hostile’ seems redundant given their harsh terrestrial surroundings and the at times predatory nature of the humans we meet. We see our world – specifically Glasgow in Scotland – exclusively through alien eyes, and it’s a scary place indeed. A mark of the film’s brilliance is that we eventually begin to empathize with Johansson’s alien as she suffers an identity crisis and the world around her begins to suffocate both her and us. The ending is devastating as the hunter becomes the hunted and the final reveal of what’s under that skin is realized through jaw-dropping, photorealistic CGI. Many (but by no means all) abductees describe their experiences as intensely horrifying but ultimately transformative and rewarding. Fittingly for a film depicting alien abduction, Under the Skin is a sensory overload – extremely disturbing, yet not without its rewards for those who are open to receiving them.
Under the Skin, 2014, Dir. Jonathan Glazer, 108 mins.