Just remember: if you see a woman in a fur coat, alone in a van, run away.
Ok. To give you an idea of what the “vagueness” of the movie is like, I’ll discuss the first 4 minutes in extreme detail. It’s not a spoiler; it’s to explain the setup of the movie and how the movie itself communicates with the viewer. This will help us a lot.
Ok, bear with me. We see black and white imagery that seems disturbing because of the ominous background music. At first the shapes look like a sun and planets, and then changes to something artificial, and in this context I make an association with a spaceship. The disturbing music teaches me that this is not a friendly thing. The shapes transform into something rod-shaped entering a hole, and so we go from the theme of space to a theme of penetration, of sex. At the same time, we hear half-formed words, as if a word or an entity speaking those words is struggling into existence, struggling towards intelligence and consciousness. In the last shot, the word is said, and the image turns into an eye. The transformation is complete. From the depths of dangerous, inhospitable space, and through a penetrative act, a creature has been shaped. The camera suggests that we are moving out of the hole of the eye, and the next screen is the title screen: Under the Skin. Makes sense. The secrets of this creature’s extraterrestrial origin and nefarious goals are hidden, under the skin.
Well, here you have it. The premise of the movie.
This is not easy. I made this description because I’ve come to the movie prepared, knowing its reputation. It’s a way of reading imagery and letting your mind make associations with the visuals to arrive at a meaning of the movie. And I’m not even sure if I have it right!! This is just my personal interpretation, and someone else could make another interpretation and we may both be right! That is sort of the point. Of course, the director can’t reasonably expect that everyone knows what to do with a film like this. A director can only hope that most of the viewers arrive at a general feeling or a vague guess about the theme of the movie. It is also the director’s way of letting us know that the finer details of the plot aren’t that important. It’s the disturbing mood that’s important.
For the rest of the movie, Scarlett Johansson lures unsuspecting Scottish men to their doom. Black and white scenes in between show us artistic representations of what probably happened. For example, the alien Johansson probably arrived on planet Earth naked, then attacked a woman and took her clothes. But what we see is a black and white play of her undressing a woman and it is for us to interpret that something like this happened in the real world. The film is so subtle that if you don’t pay attention, you might miss a lot. She looks at an ant instead of the woman she killed. Does she have more in common with insects? We see a quick shot of lights moving away from a skyscraper. Was that a UFO?
The camera moves here and there, focusing on men, like a predator looking for a prey. I am totally fascinated by the movie.
Scarlett Johansson plays wonderfully as a creepy, robotic alien who suddenly lights up with life while she’s in conversation with someone, but drops all expression just as fast when no one watches. The film quickly goes from exciting to really disturbing. Some of the scenes that show what an opportunistic predator she is, are actually quite shocking and leave you staring at the screen with a sick feeling. There is no blood and gore, just human tragedy. Some of the surrealistic imagery is creepier than many a horror movie.
She is on a road of self-discovery as well. The movie is concerned about the differences between how things look, and what they are inside. Like, she is attractive, but a dangerous trap. She gets a rose, beautiful but the thorns make her hand bleed. It fascinates her, and she starts to realize how her exterior, her promise of pleasure, is not only usable as bait, but she can also gift herself, and bring happiness to some. From that point onwards, she becomes a defective agent.
I don’t have much bad to say about it, except that it is slow at times and so dark that I can’t really make out what’s happening. I like how grounded and embedded it is in the real world. It is almost shot like a documentary and the bleak Scottish landscapes are beautiful and suitably atmospheric. Only, in the final third of the film, the real world feeling is sadly left behind more and more as the plot turns into new directions. The film breaks down a little bit here, because the nice contrast between the normal real world and the weird Johansson that was so present at the start of the movie, disappears. When that contrast disappears, all we have left is vagueness.
Whether or not people like this movie must not be the top priority of director Jonathan Glazer. I think he made precisely the movie that he wanted to make. I guess I am lucky to like it. It started to bore me a bit though towards the end, and I definitely like the first half a lot more than the last.