Guest contributor Gerry Lopez and I sat down for a conversation about Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin.
Under the Skin (2013)
written by Walter Campbell and Jonathan Glazer
based on the novel Under the Skin by Michel Faber
directed by Jonathan Glazer
Carlos: Well, Gerry, I have to say I had high expectations for Under the Skin. It seemed to be exactly the type of thing I would like: A sci-fi movie with “artsy” leanings in the sense that everything’s not spelled out for you and the narrative is more minimalist. I find those kinds of things intriguing, and I think you do too. And it was indeed what I was hoping for.
The story is about an alien who passes itself for human by taking the form of a woman (Scarlett Johansson). It then goes around Scotland picking up random men for sex, draining their bodies of their life force and sending the energy back to its home planet… or something to that effect. It’s actually never clear, and I love that about it. From the opening sequence of an eye being formed as the extraterrestrial adopts its anthropomorphic shape, I was in. Way in.
Gerry: And that ambiguity is there from the first frame giving the film what I liked best about it: A sort of dreamlike quality that I relate very specifically to, like the types of movies and shows I remember coming across by accident on late-night PBS or odd cable channels. Much like the black goo the alien uses to consume (?) its victims, it’s almost as if you aren’t sure at times whether this movie is real, a documentary, or if you’re just imagining the whole thing as you drift off to sleep. But somehow it stays with you the next day. It made me think of Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010), which has a similar vibe.
C: Glazer really navigates the whole thing beautifully. Under the Skin is gorgeous, with shots that are haunting and delicate. Those scenes with the men floating underneath the black liquid; a lone motorcycle riding in the rain; the moment early on where the alien undresses a dead woman and takes its clothing. All of these contribute to that dreamlike aura you describe, and the more I think about it, it’s exactly the right tone to use in this, being that the film is mostly told from the point of view of this otherworldly being. It makes sense that our world would be disorienting and confusing for it.
G: And there’s a sense that comes together by the end, where the alien is just surviving, like a wild animal. I think that’s where a big part of the sympathy you feel for it comes from too. If you get past the whole atmosphere and try to get to plot specifics, it’s ultimately not clear that it even is an alien. It could very well be some life form that originates on Earth. But then, none of that is even the point. It’s a character piece, even if we are never really sure of who or what the character in question is. And in many ways, the character is us and how we relate to violence. I was creeped out by the way it was picking off these victims, but then once it becomes the victim, I felt nothing but sadness for it.
C: I was very surprised at the way the film subtly handles the alien’s slow understanding of what it means to be human. It listens to the radio, looks at itself in the mirror, reacts strangely to the cacophony of sounds at a club. And then it meets a deformed man who it almost kills, but feels sympathy for and lets go. That’s the first moment where it shows humanity, and it’s handled in a way that’s understated and kind of poetic. From there the alien pretty much breaks from its mission: It begins to learn how to be a real flesh and blood woman. It tries to eat some cake, but throws up. It meets another man who shows it kindness, and experiences first love and sex with him. And eventually, it dies violently at the hands of a logger who tries to rape it. None of this is ever overexplained or overdramatized. Just like life itself, it’s somewhat tragic and fleeting, just like that final shot of the snow falling softly on the camera lens. It just happens.
G: The central thesis, I guess, is that our ability to feel empathy is what makes us human. It achieves this, but then the question is whether that was its actual mission or not. And it doesn’t seem like it was.
C: I don’t think that was its original intention, but once it begins, it’s curious enough to embrace it. I did feel that Glazer could’ve fleshed out the idea of the bodyguards/enforcers that travel around on motorcycles. It seems strange that they wouldn’t be able to locate the alien once it goes rogue.
G: Yeah, I agree.
C: Did you feel there was a commentary going on about male/female relations in any way? In its female form, the being never really has interactions with other women.
G: There’s certainly some tension in terms of gender politics. It victimizes these men via sexual bait and switch. It seems aware enough to be able to do that. Yet in the end, it’s a sexual assault on its female body that leads to its death, and it almost seems naively innocent at that point. Not to mention how many men are sitting there thinking what they would do if someone that looked like Scarlett Johansson pulled up in a van and started trying to pick them up. And let’s not forget that many of those scenes were shot with hidden cameras and improvised by her with unsuspecting guys on the street who later signed releases. That’s a big part of this.
C: It’s a great film. Johansson is particularly good, relying on stares and body language to convey unearthliness without overplaying the performance. And Mica Levi’s haunting score really adds to the heightened experimental nature of the movie.
G: It’s a fine line to make a film that can be a straightforward, if dreamy, narrative while still having a meta level to it like this. It’s funny because, on a certain level, it could very well be that the being took the real Scarlett’s body. So in a sense, she’s playing an alien playing Scarlett. Who knows. I think it adds to the conversation about sexuality and human nature.
C: I guess we both agree on this one then?
G: NEVER! Oh, wait. Yeah, I guess we do.
Carlos’ and Gerry’s rating: ***½
Gerry Lopez and Carlos I. Cuevas