Under the Skin is the type of film that is simple enough to describe in its story, but maddening to comprehend in how it was presented. Scarlett Johansson plays an alien living in the skin of a human body. She is not a creature that specifically has plans of world domination nor is she particularly seen as a frightened child curiously trying to understand Earth’s culture. Johansson’s character is more perplexed about her identity and examination of human beings from a silent mental analysis. She wants to learn more about the human race and how she herself can or cannot mend herself into the folds of its fabric.
The very first shot pulls back from an iris as we hear the female voice struggle to pronounce and enunciate the English language. She sounds out simple words slowly and in repetition to get it just right. After her presumable motorcycle assistant hauls a female body out of a ditch, the setting switches to a sterile, white plain where the nude figure of Johansson’s character strips down the dead woman who looks exactly as she does. Though now concealed in clothing, she knows that there will be others who may discover her secrets. Her identity as Laura must be flawless less her alien presence be discovered.
For the entire film, Laura drives around Scotland in white van talking to various men with the motorcyclist not far behind her. Some of these men are simple strangers, some of them are violent punks. One of which is a lonely man with the disfigurement of neurofibromatosis (a series of facial tumors of which the real actor is afflicted with).
What follows is a dance of temptation and examination as she lures in men to her flesh. The world literally turns into a black canvas as she strips and the men follow doing the same. The farther the men progress, the deeper they literally sink into the inky black below. It’s eerily quiet in these moments with a piercing, lone violin on the soundtrack. We see little of what actually happens to these men once they are sucked under into the dark void. All they leave behind is a floating sheet of shed male flesh that wavers and contort. The mind reels at just what is trying to be said about sexuality or the perception of sexes.
What I found most intriguing about the movie is that it’s a jigsaw puzzle that never ends. You watch it once and think you have it all pieced together for what is being said. But then you watch it a second time and notice something new in the visuals. Maybe its message is less about man’s fear of the opposite sex, but a woman’s physical repulsion to the fragility of sexual congress. Or perhaps those scenes of dark intimacy seem to suggest an indescribable separation between the two sexes. Or maybe Laura’s journey is meant to symbolize the mutating morality and mortality of humanity. Or is it really saying nothing at all?
This is the type of artistic film that is enough to drive a viewer mad. It’s a rubix cube that keeps changing colors and shifting directions where the easily frustrated will chuck it at the wall in anger. For that reason, I completely understand why many would hate such a film as it was booed at the Venice film festival. Critics were divided. Some called it laughably bad while others hailed it as one of the best films of the year. It should be clear from its inclusion on this list where I stand as I tend to favor a film that challenges its viewer with subtext. I don’t claim to get the movie because the thrill of the entire experience is trying to comprehend its meaning.
The key to this whole experience lies in Johansson’s acting. The blank look that many criticize her for plays to her advantage. Her character is one that internally struggles to comprehend the body she occupies and the environment it lives in. After a brief sexual encounter, she immediately leaps out of bed to shine the lamp on her genitals. She is both frightened and amazed at the sensation and change in her physical form. Later on, she simply stares at her naked form in a mirror, slightly moving various muscles to see how they all work. She is infatuated with the human form in a way that appears both curious and mysterious. It’s a startling vision of an outsider’s eye on the human race in how we seem and communicate with others.
The last form of Laura’s true alien form is one of creepiest sci-fi moments I can think of in the last decade. Johansson sits in a snowy forest slowly peeling back the exposed skin from her head. Ripping off the flesh exposes her true alien form that appears black. Her last moments in the film find her cold, vulnerable and in pain.
Most of the time we have aliens in movies they come down for one of two reasons: they either want to say hello (E.T., Starman) or they want us out of the picture (War of the Worlds, Independence Day). We’re never revealed Laura’s true intention for this journey in a human body. Perhaps her race is intelligent enough to not presume too much about Earth before revealing their true forms either start a dialogue or start invading. Maybe they picked up our transmissions of various alien invasion movies and decided to go ahead cautiously with exploring humanity.
This is an elusive piece of movie art I find endless infatuation for its evocative and quiet tone. The best movies in my mind are the ones that present something visually challenging and leave you questioning the picture long after the credits have rolled. If I were still in college, it’s the type of film I’d stay up until 4am arguing with my roommate over various theories until we start dissecting the picture frame-by-frame.
For that very reason, I can only recommend the movie with a disclaimer. Those who are seeking some simple entertainment of an alien discovering Earth culture will be sorely frustrated to the point that they shout “what the hell was that?”, stop the movie and forget about it. But those who want a piece of cinema art that dares you to define it will whisper “what the hell was that?”, rewind the movie and watch it endlessly. Any movie that can leave audiences that divisive and perplexed is just damn good moviemaking in my book.