Under the Skin (2014)

Final Rating: 9.0/10

Jonathan Glazer hasn’t been around for a while. He’s shot some pretty memorable music videos for Blur, Dead Weather, Radiohead and more, and he also made that excellent film that helped kick off the start of the last decade Sexy Beast. After his second film Birth, Glazer vanished from the film world. Something that didn’t disappear so easily was Scarlett Johansson’s photograph of her unfortunate fall that made its rounds time and time again online. This unintentional example of viral marketing had everyone laughing at the poor actress’s misfortune as she got turned into a meme. Out of nowhere, Under the Skin comes out and it is Glazer’s eventual return to cinema. After having seen the film, it has become apparent that Johansson’s fall was for the film and was intentional. With cameras being hidden during the filming of this movie, how could one tell it was a part of a script? Either way, this science fiction film that dives into the ugliness of humanity, with the odd exception of that rare human kindness, makes the collective reaction to Johansson’s planned fall all the more appropriate.


It is difficult to describe this movie without giving much away as it is a film that never explicitly states what is going on. Some parts of it had to be pieced together after I watched it, which is a good thing because my questions all had answers and this is a result of the movie having a lingering effect and not an example of poor writing. Nonetheless, right off the bat the film is proud that it is a science fiction film. The movie starts off with a long pause, a black screen and a small white dot that is slowly coming closer as uneasy music plays.This reminds me a bit of the self aware opening of Ingmar Bergman’s opus Persona, and many things about Under the Skin feels influenced by this psychological thriller from the uncomfortable (yet spot on) pacing, the little amount of dialogue, the questions of identity and “the other”, and even some of the actual shots. In Persona, a young boy waves his hand over a blisteringly bright light with the faces of the two female leads superimposed on said light. In Under the Skin, Scarlett Johansson’s character is nude and stripping the clothes off of a dead corpse to use while they remain silhouettes on top of an extremely hot light. In context, this will surely make more sense, as Johansson’s character is an alien discovering the ways of humanity. Well, the alien’s job isn’t so simple: She lures men sexually and tricks them by leading them into a liquid that renders them motionless where their skin is harvested and used. Why? Again, the movie never clearly states what is happening with the plot but it can be assumed that there are aliens everywhere disguised as humans and that human skin is needed to disguise more aliens. She feasts on the bodies of the perverted and the arrogant: The kinds of men that hit on someone asking for directions.

This performance by Scarlett Johansson is one that is unlike anything she has done before and is perhaps her best role yet. She walks slouched over and with an awkward limp: Clearly this alien hasn’t fully grasped the ways of humanity. She stares and examines with a blank face when most people talk to her but acts natural when fully communicating with others. This alien is either a master manipulator or she is someone who secretly wants a connection with these beings she preys on. She is an observer that never looks monotone as so many people playing science fiction characters, whether they be aliens or androids, tend to do. Backing this femme fatale is a every appropriately Hitchcock-ian score that combines both unnerving string instruments (that screech into your brain) and beautiful ambient music. The world surrounding the alien is gorgeous, and rightfully so: How else would a new being understand our world around us? The nature shots are exquisite and the city shots are full of anxiety, and all of the shots are expertly done. Johansson, the music and the cinematography all make this poetic film all the more illuminating.

The biggest successes are the small changes in the alien’s daily routines. When she bumps into a man with neurofibromatosis, she lets him go as she connected with a human who was beautiful on the inside. The way she stares at him not out of disgust or curiosity but out of connectivity is absolutely moving. She begins to try eating like a human and her efforts are not without struggle as she gags over the tiniest amount of food she slowly eases into her mouth. When she engages in intercourse with another human she begins to trust and she panics when she is penetrated, at first it seems like she is not used to the way humans have sex as it is foreign to her. We later find out that her skin is extremely delicate at the end of the film, and that holes can be ripped into her costume. She has an alien partner that takes on a male body and rides a motorcycle everywhere. When she lets the disfigured man go freely, we are never told that she is in trouble or that she is even in relation with this other alien of whom we rarely see (apart from the fact that the dead girl at the beginning of the movie was assumedly delivered to Johansson by this other alien). However ,we know that there is some sort of urgency when we see this other alien zipping across the road. His subtlety is a bit scary because it goes to show how anyone in this film can be an alien and we would never truly know who is and who isn’t from another world. Would he truly kill Johansson’s character for letting a human go? We may never find out, as it is the ugliest human in the film that is the cause of Johansson’s demise: A metaphor for the close mindedness of some people preventing science and the future from entering society.

At the same time, Under the Skin shows how the people of today are easily conned because of how shallow their thought processes have become. It is through perversion that these men were tricked, yet it is worth noting that Johansson’s interest in human compassion that lead her to a similar fate. Under the Skin may not click with people instantly, as it is a film that relies heavily on self interpretation, but it is a film that will definitely resonate with any viewer no matter what their opinion of the film is. It was a risky film for Glazer and for Johansson and both of their gambles worked heavily in their respective favors: Johansson is officially capable of creating a film as cryptically brilliant as his music videos and Johansson has proven that she can act with a talent far higher than many have given her credit for. It is a very unique take on the normal alien-take-over genre with a sense of neo noir. It’s strikingly well shot and a nervously shaky ride amongst the glorious views. This film warrants a viewing even if it is alienating in style, especially to the casual film going audience. Don’t be fooled by its basic structure, though: There is a lot more going beneath the surface of Under the Skin.

About author

Former Film Editor & Music Writer at Live in Limbo. Co-host of the Capsule Podcast. A Greek/South African film enthusiast. He has recently earned a BFA honours degree in Cinema Studies at York University. He is also heavily into music, as he can play a number of instruments and was even in a few bands. He writes about both films and music constantly. You should follow him on Twitter @Andreasbabs.