This is a crazy world we live in, and seeing it from an outsider’s perspective can be quite an eye-opening experience because of how jaded we are to society’s expectations and evolution as a culture. Jonathan Glazer’s adaptation of Under the Skin works in many, powerful layers, carefully placing themes of sexuality and gender roles in modern civilization under the microscope. It could be one of the most important movies of our generation.
Under the Skin does not hold your hand. Far from it. The premise follows an alien who inhabits a woman’s body, in this case a dark-haired Scarlett Johansson. Its mission, from what we can infer, is to lure the men of Scotland into a white, unmarked van
full of candy, seduce them with small talk and outer appearances, and take them back to home with a black room that engulfs these men in a pool of doom. What the purpose or intent of all this is is not explained, which is the furthest point of the movie.
Meticulous in structure and plotting, Under the Skin is one of the the slowest of slow burns in cinema. Although not pretty to look at, the imagery depicted on screen can be haunting and sometimes unnerving; much like the eerie, entrancing score by Mica Levi. The characterization of the alien is that of curiosity, innocence, and blissful ignorance. Scarlett Johansson’s performance is bold, challenging, and profound. Under the Skin was shot hidden camera style when she picks up these men, incorporating a lot of improvisation. Johansson also has very few lines of dialogue, a lot of character building can be interpreted by the little things she does with her face, which she has perfected over her career and works impeccably here.
As the alien slowly comes to understand what its human, female form is capable of, it adapts to certain situations while grasping what human males desire, resonate with, emote, and prey on. It may seem as though the first few interactions between the alien and these men are all the same, but they are each unique, gradually changing the alien and altering the course of the story.
After a handful men are lured to their ultimate doom, the alien drifts from its mission to seek out ways in which it can be more human – eating cake, joining a gaggle of women for a night out on the town, and even partly forming a relationship with a man. The alien’s journey is terrifying, for the character as a visitor on Earth and viewing it from the perspective of a human. What this movie is able to capture metaphorically through its plodding narrative is beautiful and very bleak.
The way Glazer depicts gender is hard to stomach and made me feel really dirty, allusions honing on the male gaze especially. When Harry Met Sally satirizes this look at human nature when Billy Crystal says, “men and women can’t be friends because the sex part always gets in the way.” In a way, Under the Skin uses this message in a more tactful way. With each encounter the alien has, the better sense of its own sexuality and power it has over men. It can be used for good and for evil. The way it uses sensuality is very empowering, and sadly in our society, when men don’t quite understand that power they become frightened and resort to unhealthy, hurtful means.
In a better world, our society, manly men, should look beyond a woman’s outer appearance and not feel the need to demean, slander, or objectify. Women should have just as much right to express themselves sexual without being shamed, unlike the way men are treated for their promiscuous behavior. And just because women dress a certain way does not mean they’re asking to be raped like some people would like to believe. When a woman bears all, physically or emotionally, and allows herself to be vulnerable, it doesn’t give men, or anyone, the right to take advantage of them. Under the Skin demands your patience in understanding its enriching metaphors. Its originality takes a bit of chewing and time to digest, but the reward is worth your time.
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Under the Skin was directed by Jonathan Glazer with a run time of 108 minutes. This film has been rated R for graphic nudity, sexual content, some violence and language