Under The Skin, loosely based on the novel of the same name by Michael Faber, is a rare treat of a movie. It’s something that is unique, something that you have to see to understand. The main character, played by Scarlett Johansson, is a nameless woman in an anonymous world. She puts on the clothes of a deceased road accident victim and drives through the streets of Glasgow trying to pick up men in a van. She finds a man who has no family and lives on his own. She talks to him with charisma and confidence, like she’s done this many times before. She takes him back to her house and has him undress. But neither the house nor the woman are what they seem. A black liquid engulfs the man. Under the surface, his flesh and bones are removed leaving only the skin. It becomes clear that the woman is an alien, harvesting human bodies for some unknown purpose.
The woman goes on to meet various men including a swimmer and a young man who is disfigured and lonely. She is followed by a motorcyclist who removes any traces of the people she abducts. She begins to question her mission, perhaps feeling empathy for the people she collects. She evades the motorcyclist and goes home with a man. After having sex with him, she is disturbed and wanders into the woods. While in a shelter, she is molested. In the ensuing struggle, her skin comes off, exposing the alien underneath.
While the Michael Faber’s novel is a blackly satirical commentary on factory farming and the nightmarish vision that advanced aliens might treat us the way we treat farm animals, the movie is more of a study in sexuality and coercion, intimacy and what it means to be human. The alien pretending to be a woman, wearing the skin and clothes of the dead, begins to turn native. She makes an effort to understand humans, through the experience of eating, having sex, walking through a forest. In the end, she experiences the worst aspects of humanity as well.
The movie portrays alienation in different ways. Johansson’s character, who wears a fur coat and has an impeccable RP accent, is like an alien compared to the men she picks up. There’s an underlying level of tension in the seduction scenes; will they try to take advantage of her? The woman switches between being chatty, open, emotional to being emotionless, silent, unaffected. The van that she drives is like a spaceship, putting her at a distance from the world.
Most of the characters in the movie are not actors and many of the scenes are unscripted, filmed with hidden cameras. These contrast with other scenes that are thoroughly unnatural, almost dreamlike, such as the scenes inside the house where men follow the woman in the darkness and do not notice when they sink into the floor. But the star of the movie is Scarlett Johansson. The way she seamlessly switches between human and alien makes for a genuinely unnerving performance, whilst still being relatable. The movie is gorgeously shot, with scenes of everyday human culture, alien technology and nature. The backing track is designed to make you feel uncomfortable and it does this well. This feels very much like a David Cronenberg movie, but with an artistic sensibility.
Under The Skin is an alien abduction movie like no other. It is often slow paced, but punctuated by images that will stay with you for a long time. Anyone who enjoys sci-fi, or just good movies, should put this on their “to watch” list.