The dominant image from Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (2013) is that of an opaque pool of black liquid, into which sink a variety of men who have fallen victim to Scarlett Johansson’s alien seductress. In addition to being a genuinely unsettling image, singular in the vast oeuvre of sci-fi/horror tropes, the black pool is also a fitting symbol for how the viewer may approach the film. Like any work of quality science fiction, or, for that matter, any work of art in general, Under the Skin elicits far more questions than it provides answers. In fact, I’m not really sure that it provides any concrete answers, its many baffling elements very much resembling the black, abysmal liquid. Yet, thanks in large part to Jonathan Glazer’s startling imagery and composer Mica Levi’s abrasive soundtrack, the film exudes a seductive pull, drawing an open viewer into its murky depths.
Many critics have been quick to assess Under the Skin as a feminist statement, which is understandable, if not completely justifiable. Indeed, you have a “female” character (the alien’s gender is never actually clarified) navigating a male-dominated Earth. She does not have a single conversation with a female character and is eventually abused and destroyed by a man. This victimization at the hands of men is likewise reflected in her partners in crime, a questionable group of male motorcyclists who are constantly keeping a suspicious eye on her as she goes about her mission. Yet, to see the film merely as a comment on gender inequality undermines its universal application to the nature of identity, whether a man’s or a woman’s. Here is a film that provokes introspection and asks the viewer to question his or her true identity: a mental process that, like the film, offers no easy solutions.
Much has already been made of Glazer’s guerrilla tactics while filming, namely his decision to plop a disguised Johansson into public places and secretly film her interacting with real people. Glazer himself has pointed out the interesting parallels between Johansson and her character: “Shooting the way we did was about understanding that the methodology and the narrative were the same thing, and they were equivalent” (Tobias). Just as Johansson had to assume a new identity by adopting an English accent and donning a black wig, her alien character assumed a new, human identity. Both the actor and character are literally wearing a “costume” of sorts.
What stops this approach from merely being a neat experiment, though, are the questions it provokes in a viewer regarding identity. After all, anyone can relate to feeling a harsh dichotomy between one’s outward appearance and inward feelings. On some level, everyone dons different “costumes” in various social situations, whether at a job interview or family dinner. The persona one shows to friends is usually much different than the personas shown to one’s family, boss, or lover. Inevitably, the question becomes: Which version of “me” is the real me? Who am I, deep down, when no one else is looking?
These are the kinds of questions Johansson’s character seems to begin considering as she develops throughout the film. Initially apathetic toward humans (in an early scene, she abandons an infant on a rocky beach after witnessing both of his parents’ watery deaths), she gradually comes to identify with her supposed enemy and experiments with her adopted, human identity. The minor infraction of trying a piece of chocolate cake at a restaurant (the punch-line of which is one of the film’s few moments of levity) eventually leads to a full-blown relationship with a man she meets on a bus. Unlike the leering, sex-obsessed men who populate the rest of the film, this man proves to be a decent creature, offering her food, shelter, companionship, and, most importantly, kindness. It is to this man that she briefly surrenders herself, nearly making love with him before abandoning him the next day. In contrast to her early, predatory scenes with men, she comes across in these moments as confused, emotional, and vulnerable. Simply put, she seems like a real human being.
So, is she becoming a true human, or is her connection to humanity merely skin deep? What makes a human a human, after all? If we consider it having a conscience, one may argue that she becomes human as the film progresses. In early scenes, she is remorseless, leading many men to their deaths without a hint of hesitation. However, later scenes, such as one in which she lets a lonely, disfigured man free after luring him to the black pool, suggest that she has developed some sense of empathy, of “right” and “wrong.” Do these actions make her human, or do they merely make her merciful, like a cat half-heartedly deciding to spare the mouse between its jaws?
It is a testament to Glazer’s talent that he is able to pack so much within a film that is largely dialogue-free. There is no expository explanation of why Johansson’s character does what she does, though the visuals (disturbing images of viscera being carried along a conveyor belt to a furnace) seem to imply that the men she catches are being harvested for some unknown reason. Again, this ambiguous information is supplied through images rather than words; the dialogue, consisting of small talk that is sometimes even inaudible, is largely disposable. Landscapes, body movements, and surreal images are the fundamental tools with which Glazer communicates with his audience. In this film, the simple act of Johansson drumming her fingers along to music has complex implications.
It comes as no surprise, then, that the film has been compared to 2001: A Space Odyssey, another film that continues to perplex many viewers with its glacial pacing and image-centric storytelling. It also comes as no surprise that the film, like 2001, has earned equal measures of praise and disdain from audiences and critics alike. However, I believe the films are quite different in their purposes. While Kubrick’s film urges us to wonder at humankind’s evolutionary future and its position in a vast universe, Glazer’s prompts us to consider what it means to be human, and not just on a biological level; while Kubrick’s film looks outward, Glazer’s looks inward. As the title implies, being human is far more complex than surface-level details. What is under your skin? What awesome, incomprehensible truths lurk beneath those black pools within us all?
Despite some glowing reviews and Johansson’s star-power, Under the Skin has not made much of an impact since its release. While the film’s abstract experimentalism placed it far beyond the realm of possible Oscar bait, it is still shocking that Mica Levi’s beautiful score was overlooked during awards season. My guess, however, is that the film’s impact and prestige will only grow over the years. Here is that rare film that satisfies and thrills as a sci-fi/horror experience while simultaneously subverting many of the expectations associated with those genres. Like the best horror tales, from Frankenstein to Psycho, Under the Skin earns its most unsettling thrills by making viewers sympathize with its “villain” and by urging them to temporarily look past that tenuous line separating human from monster.
Note: All images are screenshots.
Tobias, Scott. “Director Jonathan Glazer on Under the Skin’s complex honesty.” The Dissolve. Pitchfork Media Inc., 2014. Web. 13 June 2015.