Under The Skin

      Comments Off on Under The Skin

In the time since its first release Jonathan Glazer’s film Under The Skin (2013) has only risen in its critical status. Some blogs that I have encountered consider Under The Skin the best film of the 21st century. The backlash against Under The Skin is just as extreme with some Letterboxd users dismissing the film as utterly meaningless. What’s irrefutable about Glazer’s film is that it hasn’t lost its ability to polarize audiences.

The premise of Under The Skin is ingenious in its simplicity. Scarlett Johansson plays an extraterrestrial who’s come to Scotland to lure men, with the promise of sex, to her “sub-space pocket dimension” to feed on their life-force. Johansson’s physical beauty and stone-faced expressions endow her alien with the same uncannily human sensibility that David Bowie brought to Thomas Jerome Newton. It’s an appearance that, in the context of the film, is an artificial facade; a disguise. The fact that Johansson can’t do a Scottish accent and ends up doing a kind of Dr. Grant impression only adds to her character’s impersonator quality.

The motives behind this alien incursion in Scotland are absurd and owes more than a little to Lifeforce (1985). But Glazer’s film isn’t about the narrative, it’s about impressions and feelings. Even at its most surreal Under The Skin is a film that invites the viewer into the experiences of its main character. As otherworldly as Scarlett Johansson seems in this film, it’s her impressions of earth that the audience must reflect upon. It’s a stoic performance that, in collaboration with Glazer, becomes highly emotive as it invites the viewer to turn an emotional gaze in on themselves.

The intentional shapelessness of Under The Skin is its greatest strength. Some critics have read the film as a commentary on immigration while others interpret it as an examination of rape culture and the female experience. In reality Under The Skin does deal with all of those themes while trying to do little more than open a discourse with the spectator regarding the very definition of what it means to be human. Johansson’s extraterrestrial is only passing as human so each experience is wholly unique if not surprising. Under The Skin suggests that to be human isn’t about biological representation but about a philosophical manifestation.

When Johansson’s would-be rapist uncovers her true extraterrestrial form and sets her ablaze Glazer essentially inverts the alien reveal during the climax of Xtro (1982). The creature hidden beneath the familiar face of Scarlett Johansson isn’t the terrifying being of Xtro or Lifeforce, she’s the pitifully human creature of Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth (1975). As soon as Johansson’s character embraces her potential humanity she is doomed. As Star Trek has taught us in all its iterations to be human is to embrace the moral ramifications of mortality.

Even if one disagrees that Under The Skin is some sort of cinematic masterpiece there is no getting around the fact that it is excellent science fiction. Particularly in today’s cinematic climate where science fiction is so often about laser guns, franchises, and special effects Under The Skin dares to go back to the fundamental basics of the genre where a visit from an extraterrestrial was a means by which to reflect upon ourselves as a global society.