I’ve made a run at talking about Under the Skin scads (In scientific notation terms a scad is similar in scale to a googol. Or something. Which, is almost as big a number as indicated by one plethora.) of times. I’ve watched it no less than five times, I’m sure. If not more. It is a movie that is nearly as inscrutable as the movie I recently reviewed and discussed Hold the Dark. Or maybe as brain busting as Enemy? Is that even possible? Actually, want a humorous few minutes of reading? Go to the YouTube location for the trailer below. And read the comments. Here’s a representative sample:
“I like atmoshpere [sic] when it connects to character and plot, but art just for art’s sake makes for a crappy movie. Such a thing belongs in a gallery, not a film that needs at the very least the character, dialogue, and plot formula to be well executed.”
“Art House Horror is a genre that should be left on the cutting room floor. I’m completely dumbfounded as to why they decided to go in this direction. This movie is filled with scenes that go absolutely no where and that make no sense and often leave you scratching your head.”
These are people who literally have ZERO clue what is happening here in this film. Aren’t even trying to grasp the deeper point that Jonathan Glazer and team are attempting to say. Alright alright, enough whining about the great American movie viewer in the wild. I know this is random, but I must point out, in a merely selfish aside (isn’t this entire post a selfish aside?) that the author of the book that this movie is based on was written by Michel Faber!! Woot Woot! What? No idea? Bah. One of my favorite books, top 20 anyway, is Michel Faber’s Crimson Petal and the White. Have any of you read it? It is absolutely stunning. Took him years and years to write it. And was heartbreakingly good throughout. Definitely a must read if you get the chance.
Ok, If you are new here – most people are, no disrespect at all! – then greetings fellow interwebs denizen. Create a shortcut and come back regularly, or heck, better yet? Signup for my weekly email to see all the new reviews I post about. But generally, I dive into discussions about each movie I review. Like hardcore spoilery chaos. Meant only for those of you who’ve seen the movie. And generally, I post a trailer, then ask everyone who hasn’t seen the movie yet, to leave. Kinda like this:
Right. Haven’t seen the film? Out of the water. It’s adult swim now. But don’t worry – there’s a million places to watch from. Like on Netflix, or Amazon, Google. Yes, I know. You are welcome.
A Thorough Deep Dive Under The Skin
There are a million ways to interpret this film. But there is one, decidedly prevailing interpretation that is generally accepted. Not saying that is the right way. But it’s just gained general agreement as to how to dissect this inscrutable conundrum. So I’ll be walking through the movie with this assumption in mind. Then, at the end, I’ll throw a couple more ways of looking at it at you, just to spice it up a bit. Can’t have you stop thinking after all.
The opening scenes are extremely confusing. But, like I said, from this prevailing view, we are watching as a human shape is created. A human suit. A space suit, specifically design for another life form, an alien, to adapt and to survive without raising suspicions here on earth. We watch as one decommissioned woman (Lynsey Taylor Mackay) is retrieved and another (Scarlett Johansson) is released.
And, as her ritual begins, we start to form a picture of what it is that this alien life force is doing here on planet earth. She systematically seeks out lonely, disaffected males. We see on more than one occasion that she abandons men that have families and actual lives that would miss them. In one particular case, we watch as a man (Joe Szula) follows the “the woman” into a run down house. And as he undresses, he follows the woman into this deep, dark void, an absence. And as he follows, he’s submerged into a liquid vacuum of light.
Are the aliens converting men into protein bars? Energy? Maybe they are vacuum sealing them and shipping them to far away zoos that charge premiums for EARTH HUMANS in their real habitats? Could it be that the woman is exacting revenge on them for man’s inhumanity to man? Some sort of cosmic comeuppance? Maybe she is the cosmic embodiment of karma. Or maybe they are just data. Information to be gleaned from.
Regardless, one particular scene goes decidedly poorly from the alien’s point of view, which is, to abduct men without making a raucous scene. The woman, while attempting to pickup a swimmer on the beach, is interrupted by a couple that are crying out in the water. Miraculously, the swimmer goes out and rescues the husband. But he instantly heads back out into the water, only to die along side his wife. Now, the swimmer, completely shot from his exertion, is laying there on the beach. The woman, what does she do? Strikes him in the head with a rock and hauls him over to the van, leaving behind the couple’s crying baby. Well, obviously, the woman’s motorcycle riding handler must go back and clean up the mess on the beach. During her next seduction, her victim, under the black water, sees the swimmer, still alive, but when he touches him, the swimmer explodes into a reddish cloud.
I should pause here a moment, and discuss the motorcycle riding “man.” This man appears to be the woman’s handler and support. We saw him decommissioning a woman at the beginning. We also see him clean up evidence that humans might find, alerting them to their presence on earth. It’s as if they work together, collectively, of one mind without external communication. But we’ll get more into the theories of these two in a bit.
But when the woman meets a man with a disfigured face, it changes the entire course of the movie. Instead of walking the man into the dark space goo, the woman allows him to leave. But the motorcyclist grabs the facially disfigured man and tosses him into the back of a car. And then, along with several other motorcyclists, they chase after the woman. Getting away, she spends time with a man, in what amounts to be an almost normal date. They watch television. They visit castle ruins. They make out, and attempt to have sex, but the woman doesn’t have all the right parts… and she leaves and heads out into the woods.
While in the woods, she meets a commercial logger who eventually ends up molesting her. After running, he catches back up with her, and tries to rape her. While doing so, he tears at her skin, revealing a black, under skin, beneath the woman’s body. The woman removes her skin and as she does so, the logger douses her with gasoline, and sets her alight.
Under the Skin Theory #1 – Aliens
Walking through the details of WHAT happened actually doesn’t do much to explain actually what happened. But if you see the woman as one of race of aliens, injected into human society for the purpose of reconnaissance and information we can then begin to lay the groundwork around what might actually be happening.
Thinking through this, the aliens have surreptitiously taken one of their own race, created a human suit for them to wear, and then sent them to collect specimens in black amber for future study. Maybe the black oil decomposes them into their constituent parts by which scientific study is easier? I don’t know really. But in this theory, these aliens have been doing this for a while now… but one of their members goes haywire. Cracks a bit. And begins to be affected by the humans it is studying. She feels compassion for the disfigured man, and decides to release him. She then yens to be human. To be something more than one of an alien race studying another culture. She wants to be one with that culture.
So the woman does her best to date a man, interact with him like normal humans do. But when she realizes intercourse is impossible she heads off. Only to be attacked, molested, and immolated by a man in the forest.
Under the Skin Theory #2 – She’s a Trap
This might seem like a small difference, but I don’t think it is. What if we never actually see the aliens. Instead, we see a weaponized trap for luring men into the goo. She’s a fishing lure, like an angler fish’s bright glowing bait for catching other fish.
What’s interesting about this theory, is that we can assume that each and every bait unit (Ok, that’s a crass description, but I can’t think of anything else.) probably breaks down in a similar way. Remember the woman found at the beginning? When she was brought up out of the ocean, as if she had been used and cast aside?
Under the Skin Theory #3 – As Morality Tale
This might be the most interesting possibility. Not sure why the previous two theories weren’t immediately obvious to the viewing audience at large, but they weren’t. To say that this one will be beyond the pale will be an understatement apparently.
Women. They are in a particularly difficult position. Have been since the dawn of time. And as I mentioned above, Michel Faber, the author of the book this is based on, he is a noted fan of the female under dog. The Crimson Petal and the White, Faber’s most famous work, is a 922 page screed discussing the plight of one particular lowly woman, and the slow trudge towards pulling herself up out of the gutter, all by herself. Step by step, year after year. And Under the Skin, is not so different a book, though maybe a bit inside out.
As a feminist manifesto, Under the Skin is a curious litmus test that Rorschach’s you into divulging your real opinion about feminist issues without realizing you’ve done so. The woman, goes from one extreme to the other. Strong uncompromising character to weak and enfeebled prey in the matter of just a few days. Desiring real human connection and identity, she becomes what she believes she expected to be, only to be molested and immolated.
Another key piece to the making of this movie that seems fairly relevant now is how the seduction scenes were shot. You know, the scenes where the woman seduces men to follow her? Yeah, those were shot without the men knowing that they were filmed. The sequences were film Verité. True life shots with non-actors, basically swooning after Scarlett Johansson, and mindlessly following her to the abattoir just around the corner. Why? What does that say? That women, specifically beautiful women, are intrinsically powerful? Or that men are inherently stupid? It’s definitely saying something along those lines.
But we demonify the women in our culture that are blatantly “power hungry.” Bitch is the colloquial term we use. I mean, the nerve of a ladder climbing woman?!? The alternative? Weak and immolated. Maybe Under the Skin is pointing out the trouble with our view of women and the two polar extreme options we give them. 1. Of being troublesome, and 2. Of being weak, and pliant. Look, I’m the last person to talk about feminism films and literature. I’m an entitled white guy. But I do know that my fellow men enjoy their women dumb and quiet. That is for sure. I can speak authoritatively about that.
Under the Skin Theory #4 – On Beauty
And zig-zagging all over again, a thought just came to me. What if this movie is less about aliens, and less about women’s rights (he says as the 2018 election results pour in) and more about the nature of beauty? Think about it. We have a formless void of an alien attempting to assimilate into the natural world order that is earth. They come to the planet tabula rasa – no assumptions, no ideas of normal. It’s like an AI (ooooh, theory number five anyone?) that is just scouring facial ticks, comments, and advertising, in an effort to understand the idea of “normal.” Right? And in so doing, they imprint with the ideas and beliefs they didn’t have two days prior.
But what are they imprinted with? How are they biased in ways that they weren’t moments before? Well, for one, beauty has been currencified here on planet earth. If you literally have nothing, but are beautiful? (Male or female) you will do alright. Don’t throw rocks at me, you know I’m right. Personally lived a few fairly traumatic middle school years in the cafeteria, where there weren’t enough chairs, and the laws of beauty played out with me ending up eating my lunch in the dark room when not enough people took a sick day. Oh, I’m not having a pity party, I’m just pointing out that it is real even as early as middle school.
Worse though? The poverty of ugliness. We have decided as a human race to be afraid of the different. “The ugly.” While the beautiful are immediately given the benefit of the doubt, cuts in line, and the best of everything in hopes of others being close to them. The ugly? Well, they have everything taken from them that they have. We lock them away. We hide them. Avoid them at all costs.
On planet earth, we have commoditized looks. And the aliens learn this lesson slowly but surely. For some reason after our 4,000th attempt at this, we have learned that human men become drooling idiots if we come in the shape of Scarlett Johansson and they don’t when we come as PeeWee Herman. Huh. Ok. Noted, but as the woman moves away from the hunter, and begins desiring the emotional and sociological connections that come with being human, something else happens. That form, that gorgeous shape that unflinchingly eviscerated its prey, now? Becomes fodder and grist for the cruel. This is the final lesson that the aliens are learning. Yes, with beauty comes power. But with beauty also comes danger – because men? They will do anything to obtain beauty. Beauty brings out an evil that nothing else will. Beauty brings about a will to power that will do anything to gain it.
Final Thoughts on Under the Skin
Any movie that is capable of cranking 4 different movie theories out of me is a good movie in my mind. Sure, Under the Skin is a brutally difficult movie to watch. Beautiful as 2001 A Space Odyssey, and yet as unfeeling as Hannibal Lecter. I’m not sold on any of the four theories I threw at you. Though I do rather like the fourth theory and its simplicity devoid of the plot devices and events. And yet, I think that women wouldn’t be incorrect in seeing a violent, virulent, feminism here too. And for those of us having a hard time getting past the open credits? Maybe just seeing aliens in this movie is a rough days work. Who knows. I don’t know – I’m sure there’s room for 20 more theories here on the board. What are your thoughts?