1 April 2014

'Under the Skin': Silver Screen Saucers review

By Robbie Graham Silver Screen Saucers

Our world through alien eyes...


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.


  1. I remember reading in Strieber's Transformation how a bookseller he knew told him a story of an encounter he had, with what seemed to be 2 gray aliens barely disguising their unearthly physiognomy with big sunglasses & scarves. He heard them criticize out loud some inaccuracies in Strieber's previous book Communion, and when he approached them he not only got the distinct feeling that he was in the presence of beings that were not human, but also a sensation he described as similar to 'being in front of a mad dog'; the metaphor implying that the 'Visitors' were scared to death of this harmless book-seller, and were on a 'fight or flight' type of state.

    So this was interesting to me because we always assume the aliens are always in control of the situation, and that the abduction is a traumatic experience for the abductee. Maybe the fear runs both ways! Maybe an alien being instinctively reacts to a human being the same way we would react to a snake in our garden, or a big hairy spider crawling our arm; we know we're so much more powerful & smarter than the spider, and that we pose a bigger threat to it than it to us --but that thought has certainly never stopped countless of us from turning the 8-legged interloper into a Pollock painting with a rolled newspaper ;)

    1. I remember that story, and I had it at the back of my mind at points during this film. Johansson – devoid of prosthetics or special make-up throughout – looks very ‘alien’ in this movie. I guess she looks sort of alien in general, having very large eyes and, In 'Under the Skin' at least, with her hair as she wears it, a slightly oversized, almost oval-shaped head. Her alien is definitely scared of us Earthlings, but she’s inclined to flight, not fight. I felt sorry for her. I'd be interested to hear an experiencer's perspective on this movie. I think in certain respects (and I stress *certain* respects) it might be uncomfortably realistic. Johansson is excellent in this, by the way, in the kind of unshowy performance that will never be recognised by any awards body.