Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Cult-Movie Review: Under the Skin (2014)

[There are spoilers in this review, so proceed accordingly.]

Based on the acclaimed novel by Michel Faber, Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (2014) follows in a long line of historical science fiction movies that concern alien beings contending with human sexuality. 

In 1978, for instance, the low-budget film Alien Prey starred Barry Stokes as a carnivorous, canine-like alien falling into a sometimes-violent love triangle with two lesbians in rural England. After his lovers were dead, he signaled for an alien invasion to commence, noting that planet Earth is “a good source of protein.”

Species (1995), of course, also dealt with an alien/human hybrid, Sil (Natasha Henstridge) seeking to mate with human beings, but with disastrous consequences for the world.

Under the Skin is a far more oblique and thoughtful rumination on the subject. The film quietly, and with dazzling imagery explores the nature of humanity, biology, and the drive and desire for sexual intercourse.

The 2000 novel by Faber is also more straight-forward in one important regard than is this 2014 adaptation.

The literary effort operates as an allegory for modern industrial farming techniques, with the central alien female, Isserley, capturing and delivering to the butcher’s block human males aroused by her beauty.

In the novel, Isserley comes to experience a degree of compassion for those who are being killed to serve her people. The message is that if we were to see what was done in our names to the animals forming our food supply, we too would harbor grave moral doubts.

Oddly, the movie still contains imagery intimating that the men’s innards are being harvested for purposes of diet. Their bloody red flesh is delivered -- like piles of chunky ground meat -- to a red-hued light source, traveling down a kind of factory assembly line, for example.

Yet, very much in the same spirit as David Bowie’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), Under the Skin doesn’t concern itself directly with the concrete details of the alien plot, or even the alien culture behind it.

Instead, Under the Skin focuses squarely on the central character, played by Scarlett Johansson, and her life-changing journey to define her nature, to adjust to life as alien inside a suit of human skin.

What is she, precisely?

Human or alien?   

Thus Under the Skin proves worthwhile as an examination of the sometimes invisible forces that push and drive humans -- and presumably all living things -- to seek connection with one another. Whether that force is unthinking sexual desire or intellectually-based empathy, we are all helpless, in a sense, to resist forces of nature.

In Under the Skin, this notion is transmitted almost entirely through canny visualizations, as the film features very little by way of meaningful dialogue. 

Instead, viewers are invited to view the world through an alien’s eyes. Simply by wearing a human suit and living with humans, Johansson’s extra-terrestrial goes from being a cold, clinical, uncomprehending observer of mankind to a being who regards herself, as, finally, one of us.

Before long, she reacts in ways we recognize and comprehend: seeking connection and fearful, finally, of her own mortality. 

When you are part of the world, not a detached observer, you see things quite differently.

Viewers expecting a sexual circus, or watching the film only to leer at Johansson’s nudity will be disappointed by Under the Skin’s dedicated, cerebral, dignified approach to the material. Under the Skin isn’t an action film, or a special effects film, or even, truly, a horror film. 

Instead -- and again much in the fashion of The Man Who Fell to Earth -- Under the Skin is about what it means to walk among us, and be one of us, even when starting from a point of total “alienation.”

“People wind me up.”

A female alien (Johansson) is born on Earth, in Scotland, and assumes the form of a dead woman, a form acquired by a male colleague of her own kind. 

After acquiring new clothes and lipstick, the alien begins to prowl Scotland for human males. She lures them back to a remote house, and -- promising sex -- leads them to a gruesome fate. They become trapped in black goo and their innards are excised, leaving only their skin as a byproduct of the process.

The alien continues to claim male victims, but after luring a young man deformed by Neurofibromatosis, experiences a change of heart.  She frees him, and leaves her colleagues behind. 

She runs away to another rural area and encounters a human male who shows kindness, chivalry and affection for her. She feels drawn to him, but discovers that her own lure -- sexual intercourse -- is just that; a trick.  Sex is physically impossible for her.

Leaving her companion behind, the alien treads into a vast forest, only to be assaulted by a rapist.  She attempts to escape from him, but he pursues her relentlessly.

“I just wanted to get away from it all.”

Under the Skin tells the story of an alien’s life on Earth, from start to finish, birth to death.

The film begins with the alien’s birth, for example.

We see weird imagery of orbs morphing and changing shape and forming into a human eye. On the soundtrack, we simultaneously hear sounds that we come to recognize as English words. The alien is “becoming” human -- learning and taking form -- before our very eyes.  But this being begins the odyssey not merely as an alien, but as a child, one unfamiliar with the human race.

As the movie continues, Scarlett Johansson’s alien character becomes more deeply acquainted with humanity, and furthermore, impacted by it. 

At first she leads men back to the house and the alien trap without remorse, pity, or perhaps even real understanding of her actions. 

She is a black-widow spider in a sense, capturing the men in a web that destroys them.  She acts not out of hatred or evil, but because, perhaps, it is in the nature of her biological programming.  The indication seems to be that this is what she has been engineered to do.

But the longer this alien remains in her human suit and in human environs, the more deeply she connects with the men she encounters. She soon feels conflicted and deformed among them, neither human nor alien, which, I suspect, is the very reason that she shows pity for the human victim with Neurofibromatosis. 

Like her, he has no real friends, and has never known love, connection, or even physical affection.  Like her, he walks the Earth alone, unconnected to others and feeling apart or different. 

By freeing him, in essence, she is freeing herself. 

The interlude involving the gentle, deformed man is perhaps the film’s most important, because for the first time, the alien recognizes something kindred in another being.  The young man is human, but outside humanity nonetheless.  He is different on the outside (deformed) than he is on the inside (as human and vulnerable as the rest of us). 

This description reflects the alien’s nature.  She is human outside, but not quite human inside…at least not yet.

It is a very cruel turn of events then, when this questing alien learns finally how to be close with someone, a man who demonstrates kindness and friendship. He protects her (carrying her over a large dirty puddle), shelters her (providing her a space heater in a cold room), and asks no questions that she may prefer not to answer.  He makes her feel connected to another being in a way she has never known, and soon she comes to feel sexual desire for him.

Yet, as she graphically learns, she is not an anatomically correct human. She has been “created” by her cohorts without the capacity to physically love another as a human would.  Yet in a human suit, in a human world, she is still buffeted by human desires, human emotions, and human needs.

This concept -- of being driven by natural or biological forces -- is expressed visually in a few crucial scenes.
Early in the film, the alien hunts a man from the Czech Republic who is swimming in dangerous waters.  We see the turbulent sea, and it claims two human lives (and the life of a dog, as well).  The alien reveals no pity for the dead or for their infant child on the shore, but the very force of the sea --- the pulling, driving force of the ocean -- suggests a natural force that is implacable.

Later, we see another natural force -- wind -- that causes trees to bend and sway dangerously in the forest, and once more, the impression is of life being acted upon or driven by something natural and inescapable.

At one point, Glazer crafts a special effects shot of the alien, huddled in the fetal position in place of the swaying trees, thus visually forging the connection that she too is being impacted by forces of biology, forces outside of her conscious control.

The same idea is connected explicitly with the men who provide easy prey for the alien.

They are led to their deaths by the desire to physically connect, to have sexual intercourse. Under the Skin, in these moments, depicts at least two men who are physically aroused -- sporting erections on camera -- and so desire is again equated to a natural force, something that humans must respond to, just as they are buffeted by the ocean’s pull, or by a strong gust of wind.  We see -- right there on screen -- the impact of desire on these men.

In her alien form, Johannson’s character is immune to such forces, perhaps.

As a human, however, she is susceptible to them. The gravity of such forces begin to impact her and her choices. They shape her feelings and decisions. She leaves a de-humanizing “mission” (luring men to their death) and strikes off alone.

Under the Skin culminates with a scene of pure human ugliness, as a man attempts to rape and kill the alien in the isolation of the forest. She has traveled full circle in a sense, crossing the distance from hunter to prey, herself. Her suit of humanity becomes torn and ripped, and we see her in her true form.

At this juncture, the alien mournfully regards her human face -- which still seems alive, somehow -- and visibly grieves the thing taken from her: her hard-won humanity. Like the raging sea, physical desire can become so powerful a force that it can harm those it impacts, this moment suggests. 

Those individuals who are raped feel very much indeed like they have lost their humanity, I suspect: that they have been exploited as an object, and that the desire to “take” was more powerful than the desire to emotionally connect.  They gaze at themselves in the mirror, and feel like their identity has crumbled, and is in shards or pierces, not unlike the alien in the film’s final scene.    

This is the point where Under the Skin asks some important questions.

It is true that this alien has led human males to the slaughter, using sexual desire as her primary weapon.

But in the scene of assault, a human’s desire burns out of control (and there are literal flames in the scene soon afterward), and the alien is on a receiving end of the vicious, cruel force she once utilized without thought or remorse..  

In the end, everything she has learned, everything she has gone through is lost…up in ashes.  The human desires she dreamed of understanding, and first deployed against others, ultimately destroys her. Again, I can’t help but think of The Man Who Fell to Earth.  The alien in that film is corrupted and destroyed by his interface with humanity, and that’s pretty much what occurs here too.  

Is the message, then, that the alien in this film deserved to be attacked for playing with fire?  And should the film thus be interpreted as carrying an anti-woman message? 

You know: be sexually alluring, and you’ll pay for it!

No doubt some will interpret it exactly that way. 

Yet I don’t believe the film is misogynist in nature. In fact, the opposite may be true.  The men in the film are led around by their sexual desires, and the rapist succumbs violently to them.  In neither specific case is a male of the species insightful enough to understand that he is dealing not with a human woman, but with an alien being. 

Instead, men respond to the alien only as a sexual being, carried away by the force of their desires.  If anything then, the film plays as an indictment of the male of species for being so out-of-control…a fact which doesn’t necessarily make the film laudable either.

So perhaps the film’s deepest value arises outside of pre-conceived notions of sex roles.  Again and again Under the Skin suggests that humans respond only to the appearance of things, not the true nature or substance of things. 

The man with Neurofibromatosis is kind and sweet, but is seen by everyone as a monster…and shunned because he is ugly.

The alien woman is seen by men as a siren or an object of sexual conquest.

She is seen by her alien cohorts as a tool for their agenda. 

But she is not those things.

She has becoming a feeling human being who wants to live and connect to others in a way that carries meaning for her. She is, in the truest sense of the word, a real individual residing outside of any specific box or demographic.

The alien’s journey in the film takes her from clinical disinterest in humanity - as exemplified by her unthinking, callous treatment of a child -- to the heightened desire to endure as a human.  In the end, she struggles mightily to remain on this mortal coil and in her human guise because she has fought for humanity, and seen how quickly someone rip it -- like a torn suit -- from her flesh.

Perhaps then, the film is not anti-woman or anti-man, but merely about the casual way we can dehumanize and destroy others in our rush to satisfy our own needs.

One thing is for certain: Under the Skin is visually-dazzling. The film’s visualizations and imagery are haunting, and presented with a near-Kubrick-like precision. We frequently race down winding roads, destinations unknown, and view moments in the alien’s life against stark white, or stark black backdrops. 

The white backgrounds visually represent, after some fashion, the purity associated with birth.

The black visuals, which blend in with the black goo, intimate the alien’s dark night of the soul when she responds only to her alien programming, and not to the process of metamorphosis.

Glazer also at points seems to apes Kubrick’s approach to sound, permitting discordant sounds to grow and develop, sometime to harrowing aural impact.  But this discord, again, fits the narrative.  Under the Skin is about an alien struggling with a dual nature, and competing values, and it’s only natural that disharmony should result, given such a conflict.

This is one film, finally, that lives up to its title.  It not only gets under your skin, it asks you to peel back the surface of things, and consider, at least for a time, what it means to be a human being, and what forces drive your actions.


  1. 1

    As I am and always have been a 'pure cinema' geek, my instincts for, and infatuation with, the medium seem to have been in mind during the making of this feature. [All great filmmaking is consciously for my benefit. Duh!] I saw this late last year and it quickly became a coveted favorite. Watching it again recently for the second time on Blu-ray only reaffirmed my adoration. There’s a lot to say about this movie but, then again, there’s also not a lot to say about it. Hear me out...

    Under the Skin is one of those films where many will, and have since, dismiss it for being too Delphian or obscure, to say nothing of it being labeled simply "boring" by the mass-commercial standard. I believe a common mistake with a film such as this is to assume it is intentionally being impenetrable; either a) for containing some lofty, complex commentary that is nonetheless wasted on vague storytelling, or b) that is possesses no real meaning at all and is merely a shallow exercise in pretentious art-house gestures—an emperor with no clothes.

    We live in an age where thinking audiences -- the particularly critical viewers -- are obsessed with content, with films requiring a "point" or "meaning" or readily definable thesis of some kind; and/or at least sufficiently scripted plot mechanics and traditional dramatic structure. Much of this I reckon can be attributed to the current trend of sophisticated cable series that emphasize characters and layered narratives which in turn prove exceedingly analogous. So when a film like Under the Skin doesn’t really deliver in any such manner, when it doesn’t literalize or even address its own purpose, many are quick to give up on what they consider aimless or, worse, feel as if they’re being talked down to, in a sense, and therefore might even respond with a degree of contempt: "I’m not stupid. There’s just nothing here to get. Who does this Glazer guy think he is?" ...that sorta thing.

    Under the Skin is by and large a work of formalism; form taking precedence over content, which is not to say the latter is absent or of no importance. Director Jonathan Glazer certainly has themes and ideas he wishes to explore, but he’s just as much driven in exploring the method of exploration itself -- the cinematic language -- if not more so. The only real purpose here is immersion, about creating an ongoing experience for the audience. Hence, every scene, primarily, is both immediate and lasting with its environments (day, night, rain and fog, highways and sidewalks, the front seat of a van, earthly elements, abstract voids etc.) and therein focused on forms of perception and that which is perceived; and, yes, primarily muted as well, because...fuck dialogue. The film is almost entirely behavioral.

    1. I love what you said here:

      "We live in an age where thinking audiences -- the particularly critical viewers -- are obsessed with content, with films requiring a "point" or "meaning" or readily definable thesis of some kind..."

      All I've got to say about this is...man, I hated "Upstream Color".

  2. 2

    Its initial conceit of an alien infiltrator navigating the human condition is mostly left as an open book and, not to blow too much smoke, but a good review like yours, John, just dives right in with an open mind. I think what you’ve interpreted about the sexual predator-prey aspects and its resulting meditation on human empathy has weight to it, but is equally valid and interesting as a projection. Additionally, I myself am intrigued by the notion that Johansson’s character is essentially just a walking camera, as the film’s opening sequence seems to objectify what is the biological manufacturing of a lens.

    Observationalism is a constant throughout the roaming narrative. This alien woman-wearer is watching everything and in turn being watched by us. It’s almost zoological: impromptu meetings with real life hitchhikers are captured through fixed POV shots from inside the van, and thus halfway occurring just out of frame, leaving us mostly with the image of Johansson’s alien turning on and off her (its) facial expressions like a switch, or in another segment of the film her zeroing-in on random urban pedestrians and the buzzing activity of a shopping mall. I also dig the process of her as a camera studying itself with increasing awareness via larger and larger mirrors, first using a makeup kit but then later when stopping dead in her tracks on a descending staircase, transfixed by her own up-close reflection as if reading "possible alternate inhabitance" for the first time, then later yet when curiously regarding her body in full nude.

    I do think Glazer was successful in creating a horror film, though. In some ways it’s a different kind of horror. Ironically, the process by which this alien consumes her prey is the least directly horrifying, played more for surrealism in a way that no doubt disturbs but at the same time is lyrically hypnotic. No, the truly abhorrent moments are those depicting the kind of shit that unfortunately happens just about every day in the real world, without any need for nefarious xeno-incognito. That whole scene on the beach, its conclusion ...ugh. The logger who nervously fronts a benign exchange only to reveal is true colors so undramatically—the mundane nature of such people. These are moments that assign horror distinctly human traits as opposed to singling it out as something otherworldly or that which celebrates horror genre conventions.

    A number of filmmakers have since aspired to Kubrick, superficially, mimicking certain aesthetics alone, for the sake of status. But I think what Glazer does here is far more concentrated. His audiovisual style and artistry is more scientific, and I like the way he edits to analyze rather than pushing for dramatic momentum. One final form of utmost significance is (the casting of) Scarlett Johansson herself. I’ve notice that we’re somewhat in the midst of a 'ScarJo avatar' binge in how the actress has been appropriated by inspired filmmakers in illustrating some fairly cerebral sci-fi concepts. As the A.I. voice in Spike Jonze’s Her, she ends-up *spoilers* attaining a level of transcendence that has likewise carried over to evolutionary, Akira-like powers most recently in Luc Besson’s Lucy. Here, she’s Glazer’s Mona Lisa from another galaxy and I can’t help but detect a certain, subversive juxtaposition between this lonely outsider traveler and the one who naval gazes her way through Tokyo in S. Coppola’s Lost in Translation. Johansson has since become noteworthy, if not often easily criticized, for her seemingly vacant countenance. When miscast or underutilized she can admittedly be a bit flat. Yet I think her performance in this film is not only apropos but thoughtful and consistently on-point as the character undergoes subtle variations. One eerily convincing moment has her mimicking the posture of a kiss in a manner that is, well, truly alien. Aanndyyess-shelooksgoodnaked. What. Sue me.

    So, yeah. I like this movie.

    1. Cannon,

      So glad you also liked this one. Something you wrote really struck me:

      "Its initial conceit of an alien infiltrator navigating the human condition is mostly left as an open book and, not to blow too much smoke, but a good review like yours, John, just dives right in with an open mind.

      I think what you’ve interpreted about the sexual predator-prey aspects and its resulting meditation on human empathy has weight to it, but is equally valid and interesting as a projection.

      Additionally, I myself am intrigued by the notion that Johansson’s character is essentially just a walking camera, as the film’s opening sequence seems to objectify what is the biological manufacturing of a lens."

      I think your point is right on the money, Cannon.

      I appreciate you saying my review is good, but the bottom line is that I am interpreting/analyzing the imagery, and in some sense, filling in or projecting with my own inherent biases.

      The film leaves itself open to interpretation. I think my reading is valid...but is it the only reading? Not at all. It is one possible reading, and that's all.

      I love your idea of the lead character as but a lens, a camera. That is perfect, and yes, it ties into the opening of the film: the birth of a lens then reshaped into a human eye. Brilliant!

      Your observation that the action is almost "zoological" strikes a powerful chord with me (and in some way, I guess, could connect to my idea about a person being buffeted by some natural invisible force...biology). There is a feeling of distance in the filmmaking, of standing back and really looking at humanity.

      Also, I feel we agree on the Kubrick-like aspects of this film. The use of sound and the same feeling of analytic "distance" is very similar indeed.

      As usual...you're awesome, and you bring a lot to the discussion of the film.

      Thank you!


  3. Clear, concise, insightful review of an unforgettable film. John, this is the best thing I've read by you yet.

    1. Thank you so much, David. I agree that Under the Skin is unforgettable. The images resonate, and I'm still thinking about them!


  4. This is a solid science fiction film with some totally stunning visuals. They are beautiful but bleak and impressive in scale. The camera often lingers for extended periods. At times it had me wondering if I had accidentally pressed the pause button on my remote.

    If you are a lover of movies that spend more time on the look than the dialogue, this is one for you. Quentin Tarantino fans need not apply. There aren't explanations for why Scarlett's alien is on Earth, how it got here, or what its goals are. That alone is going to piss a lot of viewers off. What won't help is the lack of details about the Scarlett alien's motorcycle-riding caretaker or about that strange goo pool and what dimension or place it exists in.

    A lot of people will find this film confusing for its lack of dialogue and the shortage of explanations for the "What is that?" or "Why did that happen?" questions they will have. But there is nothing complex about the character arc of Scarlett's alien. The lack of a spoon fed ending won't help, either.