SPOILER WARNING!!! THIS DISCUSSES AND GIVES AWAY VIRTUALLY ALL OF UNDER THE SKIN IN SUCH GREAT DETAIL AND IT WILL SPOIL ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING — INCLUDING INTERPRETATIONS — OF THE FILM. FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, DON’T READ THIS IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE FILM.
So I’ve seen Under the Skin eight times in theaters and more times at home. I can’t stop thinking about it, I listen to the score on repeat, and I knew the first time that I saw it that it would definitely one of my favorite films of all time. However, it has become my ultimate favorite film of all time. I’ve never had such an emotional reaction or such a fascination with a film, ranging both from its aesthetic style, to its pacing, ambiguity, colors, and music. Each time I’ve seen it, I noticed something a bit more about its messages and how it’s made, so here’s what I found.
The film opens surreally with a pinpoint of blue light which slowly grows, consummating in the creation of a synthetic eye which is the creation of Johansson’s character. (Johansson, Glazer, and A24 have referred to her as Laura, so I’ll refer to her simply as that.) It’s the birth of her ability to sense and perceive the things around her in a human form. She is then shown undressing a human body, but already in a human state. However, since the two bodies are in a perfectly white and nonexistent environment, it seems like this is a metaphysical representation of Laura taking over a human body. Within this void sequence, white represents birth and life. As she takes the clothes off of the woman, she evokes the feeling that she is, in a sense, a newborn baby, nude and crawling on the floor.
The incapacitated woman seems to be Laura’s predecessor, and she may not be dead. After she is stripped of her clothes, a single tear falls down her face, implying her fate as well as foreshadowing Laura’s. Before setting out on her mission, she goes to a mall and sees humans putting on makeup and enhancing their physical appearances. Attempting to emulate this, she buys a brown fur coat, furry high heels, a pink sweater, and wears red lipstick, the latter two of which pop in many scenes early in the film.
She drives around in a white van and we see some shots from her point of view, all looking at men. Only men, but all kinds of men. This is interesting because first off, the predator is female preying on men, and we see her foreboding perspective, the camera slowly turning to follow the men as they walk down the street, underscored by simplistic yet otherworldly music. It’s incredibly rare to see men portrayed as victims onscreen yet it comes off as realistic because this viewpoint shows to the male audience what victimized females feel as they are watched and attacked, not only in film, but in real life as well.
As Laura lures in unsuspecting men with the promise of sex and brings them to an otherworldly lair, she is monitored by who seems to be her immediate superior, in the form of a male motorcyclist. The void which she brings her victims to is completely black, representing death. The men she lures in seem to be completely unaware of their surroundings, which seem to be representative of how humans react to sex: it seems to completely overtake one’s mind and the entire world disappears around them as they remove their clothes in an almost robotic fashion and follow Laura, becoming trapped in a black oily pool. One of them even looks upon Laura with a sort of childlike wonder.
The same man doesn’t realize that he is underneath the surface until he’s trapped. He sees a previous victim and he implodes; his skin billows and he is stripped of his humanity as what looks to be his innards are sucked into a distant passage towards a distant red light. A beaming red light closes the scene, which acts as a comparison to the opening creation sequence—the blue light represents life, while the red represents death, which makes sense since life and death are opposites, and blue and red are opposite colors. The entire scene is both unnerving and scarily hypnotic. In fact, it’s so effective that every time I watch it, I become completely entranced and get so moved by the filmmaking that my entire body starts to quiver and my eyes start to water. It’s like my mind doesn’t know how to make my body physically react.
It is here that I feel like Glazer is attempting to convey rape to a male audience. There’s a kind of gender reversal aspect going on throughout the film. Here, a woman is powerful and overtakes unwary men. In the real world, people tend to warn women to not be alone, or they might warn women to not “bring it on to themselves” (or something like that; I don’t agree with those justifications). Here, the men are in what is normally thought to be the woman’s position, and they are victimized and stripped of their humanity.
Specifically, Laura picks up a man from a nightclub. In the real world, people warn women to not go out by themselves, not to dress to provocatively, and not to do anything that could be misconstrued as overtly sexual (i.e. “bringing it on to themselves” as if they’re to blame). Here, the male audience connects to the male character, since both the audience and the character are the same gender, and are likely thinking about Johansson’s beauty. The man, instead here, is the one that “brings it on to himself” and, while trying to simply have fun or pick up women, ends up being made into a victim and is forced into a horrific situation, eventually culminating in his loss of humanity. There is a parallel drawn between death and sexual assault, as there is later in the film (I’ll get to that later).
Meanwhile, Laura is growing from extremely apathetic (or sociopathic, at least from our human standards) to human, originally leaving a toddler to die and killing a swimmer, to receiving help from people as she falls on the street, getting a rose from a stranger (which also cuts the man that gives it to her and causes her fingers to become bloody, showing how difficult for her it is to adapt to this world), and ultimately attempting to seduce a man with neurofibromatosis, to which she doesn’t react. The man is taken aback by this, as he has no friends and shops alone at night. She and the man are not only both different, but Laura views the world through an objective lens, as she is in fact not an actual human.
This proves to be possibly the most pivotal part of the film, and fittingly enough, I find it to be extremely interesting. The idea about the disfigured man is not that we feel pity for him, but that Johansson’s character becomes more aware of herself. She doesn’t seem to see humans as any different from one another, kind of like how humans view animals. For example, if we see a group of a kind of animal, we think that they look extremely alike and we do not realize their differences. As Johansson’s character walks downstairs and is about to put on her fur coat, she sees a mirror in front of her, stopping her in her tracks and preventing her from getting fully dressed. She is lead to realize her human body and from this point never wears her fur coat again. While she looks in the mirror after capturing the disfigured man, she hears and sees a fly trying to get out of her abandoned house and has a moment of realization, leading her to let him go.
Although she lets the man escape, he is tracked down by the motorcyclist alien and killed, illustrating that as long as you are a human, you will inevitably die. Laura, seeming afraid for the first time, then flees into the Scottish highlands and abandons her van (the sound design, which is possibly the best that I’ve ever heard, implies that her van runs out of gas) and her seductive fur coat. Without her coat, she is becoming more and more vulnerable. A kind, quiet man offers to give Laura help, and while following him to his house, she sees a baby looking at her from a window, causing her to turn away and look both disturbed and regretful. Here, it is further shown that she is conflicted about her earlier actions, specifically leaving a baby to die on the beach.
She eventually attempts to become more human by eating food, developing a relationship, observing human comedy on television, and trying to tap her fingers along to music. The man that takes her in gives her his coat; she is now wearing clothes for protection as opposed to prey on others. Later that night, she observes her own body in a mirror while warmly lit by a space heater, further becoming more drawn to being a human. (Yet another thing I love about this film is how incredibly non-perverse the nudity is throughout the film. It’s so objective and respectful to everyone involved, which works even more because the film presents humans to us from an alien perspective, void of any specific connotations such as sexualized nudity.) She attempts to make love to the man that brings her in, but is unable to, which I found to be subversive; films always depict losing one’s virginity as glorious and perfect. She is still not yet completely human.
Confused, she goes into the woods and falls asleep in a shelter, which seems to be the first time that she feels a sensation of peace as she is shown dreaming and feeling like one with the earth. She is then molested by a logger from the forest who tries to rape her. During the attack, Laura’s hunting theme plays again, the same music that played as she victimized the men and lead them to their deaths. However, the music here is more somber and pitiful as opposed to the hunting theme, which is more unnerving and screechy.
Here, the film’s role reversal switches back to the traditional gender roles, as Laura is preyed on and eventually falls victim. She is injured and peels off her artificial skin, finally realizing who she is. As soon as the logger sees Laura’s true form — a onyx black androgynous humanoid as opposed to her artificial, traditionally beautiful exterior — his perception of her immediately shifts. She is no longer a sight of beauty, but instead an ugly, strange, and disconcerting sight. The logger follows through with the traditional masculine response of “kill it with fire.” He douses Laura with gasoline and sets her on fire, causing her to futilely ran away while ablaze eventually collapsing into a pile of embers in the snow. As her ashes flow into the sky, the movie ends.
There is a link drawn here between sexual assault and death, showing that sexual perversion can strip one of their humanity. Here, Laura’s growing humanity is literally stripped off of her as she is objectified, also drawing a parallel to the men she victimizes earlier in the film. She sees who and what she truly is and only reacts with a solemn sense of pity. In addition, this moment parallels the disfigured man’s story arc. Both that man and Laura now have what differs from the conceptual norm of beauty, and the logger, being a shallow and superficial man, becomes disgusted with her appearance and ends her life, similar to how society had rejected the disfigured man previously due to his looks.
The film’s main lesson appears here, and I found it to be extremely moving because I had never thought of it before. With this film, I have learned that one is not truly a human until they have died. Living a life and growing is what makes a person a human being, and death is the only thing that permanently stops one’s maturing, and with that, it validates our existence. Again, it is demonstrated here that a human being will die. The alien on the motorcycle is shown standing on the mountains, still looking for Laura, but he hasn’t died. He hasn’t even changed. And that is because he never became a human. Laura, however, gets an oddly happy ending, as she gets what she has grown to want: she is now one with the earth. She now takes the form of fire, ash, snow, and wind, which falls back to join with her new home planet.
In addition to this main storyline, I noticed something about the ant, which is what I believe to be a smaller arc that takes place throughout the film. The first thing that she observes is a quiet ant that can’t do anything except twitch around, and she later observes active humans, walking around and talking in a mall. Later, she goes into a nightclub and sees humans surrounded by overwhelming lights and sounds, and she’s the only one that isn’t actively dancing or raving. We humans perceive seemingly useless insects in the same way that these aliens perceive humankind.
Eventually, Laura meets a man that is able to love her, which, in a way, is far more elusive than a person simply running around or dancing and screaming, as it requires a far more human, selfless, and compassionate side to one’s personality. However, when she goes into the woods, she meets a man that is subversive in this arc: one that victimizes, objectifies, attempts to rape, and eventually kills her. This observational arc also parallels Laura’s arc; as she observes humanity, her humanity grows, but when she is subjected to a horrific circumstance, her humanity is taken away, linked with her death. In addition, the ant is of course to illustrate how these aliens view humans, as shown in the beach scene.
As for these aliens’ motives for their actions, they seem to be attempting to take human skins so they can wear them and later start their invasion, which seems to be doomed to fail. Laura’s predecessor is implied to have suffered a similar fate, and because these aliens are not necessarily shown to be superior to humankind, they do not have an actual advantage. Regarding the use of human skins, there is one motorcyclist alien, but later on in the film, there are at least four, and Laura had victimized about or five men. Also, Laura and the motorcyclist disregarded the baby and left him for dead, and in the harvesting scene, the men’s innards are showing being sucked away and disposed of.
As a film, I found it satisfying that the film starts with the production of this synthetic being, and ends with the death of this organism as a human. I loved the surreal imagery that shows how things feel in the moment. I loved the music, the acting, and the languid pacing. I loved that the characters feel detached, and that’s because the film itself feeds off of our abilities — as humans — to interpret and understand other people, which is very relevant to the subject matter. This is what people talk about when they refer to filmmaking as art, and this is why I find this film to be a masterpiece, and it has grown to be my favorite film of all time.
Quality Sci Fi / Horror? Check √
Something a bit different? Check √
Scarlett Johansson? Check √
World class motorcyclist? Check √
Director of the brilliant Sexy Beast movie? Check √
Director of 90’s music videos for Massive Attack, Blur, Radiohead, Jamiroquai and UNKLE? Check √