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THIS WEEK: Under the Skin (2014) A mysterious alien on a curious mission seeks out and seduces innocent men.
HOW IT STARTS: A man expecting some fun between the sheets with Scarlett Johansson gets way more than he expected.
THE PREFACE: Jonathan Glazer makes an amazing debut, directing this hallucinatory and introspective sci-fi thriller. While the visuals are incredibly beautiful, there is also a lot of substance. Under the Skin examines rich themes and philosophy. This interpretive film is the deepest sci-fi in years. It’s rare that a move makes you examine yourself. This story is that participatory. Without much dialogue and zero exposition, it’s up to the viewer to (want to) figure things out. An incredibly atmospheric and unsettling score helps fuel the atmosphere the astounding visuals establish.
This ambiguous story is driven by a magnetic performance from Scarlett Johansson. We soon realize her character (credited as “The Female”) is an alien, but it’s up to how we interpret the imagery to discover her mission. This strange movie coats you in a second skin. It’s hard to shake off. The shock ending only makes you want to talk about it even more. Under the Skin is so special I’m saving it for repeat viewing. I’ve only seen it once, when it was released on DVD. I feel like it needs to settle and be explored again after a passage of time. Glazer’s haunting debut is one of the best sci-fi in years and the best film of 2014.
THE SET-UP: The movie begins with Johansson’s character taking the clothes off a dead woman. The scene is bathed in brilliant white light. The set seems to extend infinitely. We get the idea that she just copied her skin or something with advanced alien technology. However, Glazer is certain to never show us anything to confirm it. This way it’s up to each individual. Everyone gets their own version of the finer details on this story.
Soon enough Johansson drives around town in a white van looking for men to accompany her. She picks up men who need a ride. Once she does, Johansson seems to be examining the situation. It seems like she’s been told what to expect from the human race, but has never had any previous contact with them. Perhaps this isn’t her first mission or first planet?
We wonder if Johansson has been told how men behave. Is she told men only want one thing: sex? Is she told some of them are violent? Is she told of war? Does this excuse taking their lives? Glazer never explicitly tells us. However, we get a good idea that Johansson knows it will be easy to seduce these men and get what she needs from them.
What she needs from them is open for debate. It seems like they are reduced to a pulpy mass, which we see passing through a large trough. Perhaps the human body is converted into a valuable resource for her alien race? Perhaps it acts as nourishment or an energy source? The point is these men are mysteriously devoured once they step into the void.
THAT MOMENT: Johansson drives these men to a secret destination. It may seem like a building, but once they step inside, the surroundings completely change. The set turns to a black abyss. The void glistens with a reflective sheen. All the men can think of is Johansson. They’re in a daze. It makes you wonder if they are making a choice, or under control? This is what they want, it is Johansson after all, but is it worth their life? As the alien seductress takes sultry steps backwards, the powerless victims keep coming forward. And then it gets really trippy.
The men slowly descend into a black liquid, even though Johansson’s alien somehow walks on the solid surface. As the men enter the dark void they are submerged completely, eventually underwater. When they look up they can see Johansson standing on the surface. What is the void?
This amazingly haunting sequence pulsates with a nerve-wrenching score, making us feel even more uneasy. Because we don’t know what is happening we feel extra uncomfortable. This is a rare feeling to experience in a movie, but it somehow really works with this story. It seems like this other realm of the void could be in the man’s subconscious mind, while his body is being processed. He never stepped into a building, he stepped into her ship. Maybe they teleport to an orbiting vessel with other aliens where they get converted in those sloshy trays of viscous human?
However you interpret this dazzling Step Into the Void Moment, it’s definitely a visual experience. It will definitely affect you, even if you aren’t certain why. It’s also rather rare to have such a pivotal scene hinge on respecting the audience. Glazer champions ambiguity.
THAT MOMENT REMEMBERED: How you understand the void and Johansson’s mission will inform how you interpret the ending as well. (I won’t ruin the twist.) The Moment also guides you to expect each encounter to follow in a similar path. Johansson picks up a unique passenger and starts to think for herself. This will drastically alter her mission.
Her passenger has a rare facial deformity. His body affects how others treat him – much like herself. The way he reacts to her is different than some of the more macho men she’s met. He isn’t set to take advantage of her. He’s not aggressive. Perhaps Johansson sees something different in the species? Perhaps she combats feelings of if it’s right to prey on the weak?
Johansson could be starting to doubt her mission. Let’s walk down this route… She was fed propaganda to get the job done. The powers-that-be benefit when their “resources” are made out to be cruel and war-like. There was a beautiful Moment on the beach when The Female witnessed altruism for the first time. It was a heart-breaking scene to watch. A young girl takes to the waves to rescue her dog, then her father has to save her. The idea that a human would risk their life for a species that doesn’t share their genes is puzzling to the alien. How does the human benefit here? Her reaction to this event demonstrates her evolution taking place under the skin.
This aspect of love and compassion continues when Johansson diverts from her mission and goes on a sort of spiritual walk-about. It’s Scotland or something so it’s cold and rainy. A concerned man comes to her aid and offers her shelter. He helps her. Back at his place, the curious Johansson has sex with the good Samaritan… and doesn’t consume him in the void. She’s changing. She’s learning. She’s building an empathetic connection with a race she was sent to destroy.
Another mesmerizing Moment was when she discovered herself in the mirror, realizing the power of her host body and the fragility of her second skin – perhaps even mortality. Eventually, we wonder if The Female is willing to be altruistic and risk her life to experience more of humanity. Johansson handles this scene delicately encouraging us to think alongside her. It really is a tender vulnerable moment of self realization.
This interpretation also extends to the mysterious biker following her. This guardian could be sent to ensure the mission succeeds. However, he could also be starting to wonder what made Johansson change her mind. Perhaps The Man can change just like The Woman. Perhaps she inspired a revolution?
Rarely does a movie engage the viewer’s senses so entirely. Under the Skin is a visual feast that makes you think. Love it or hate it, this is a viewing experience worth having. It’s not every day you can challenge yourself with a film. Watch this with some fans of obscure artsie films and start a conversation . . . or leave some of your own theories down below in the comment section.
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