Revisit Jonathan Glazer's disturbing contemporary sci-fi classic about a mysterious alien on the hunt.
he first sounds you hear in Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin (2013) are complete gibberish. We’re not sure whose voice it is, but it’s as if they’ve never even spoken words out loud. These noises play over a small blue pinprick that expands into a blinding white sphere. Overlapping concentric circles merge together in what looks like an eclipse. As Glazer plunges the frame into darkness, while Mica Levi’s score anxiously skitters in the background, you slowly get the sense that something is being assembled. All of a sudden, the image bursts into color and we realize we’re staring at an eye.
We can intuit that it belongs to a mysterious figure, played by Scarlett Johansson, who’s introduced donning the clothes of an immobile, possibly dead woman, brought to her by an unnamed biker. Glazer’s formal command finds its focus with this alien subject. Shortly after the biker hands her the keys to a van, Glazer’s camera follows her around a mall as she goes shopping. It observes women trying on make-up, employees standing at registers, people walking across the space. Their voices blend together in a meaningless cacophony. In these scenes, Johansson’s character comes across more like an observer, a scientist in the wild with some unfamiliar species, recording their social habits. There’s no judgment towards them at all—how can you judge something that’s totally new to you? Most films would use her habit of picking up random men, luring them into an abandoned house, and seducing them into walking across an inky black void until they sink beneath the sludge as a pretext for some kind of invasion plot. Instead, it comes across more like the spider and the web. It’s nothing personal. It’s just in her nature.
You can know that Glazer and his crew shot the void sequences by having actors walk into a descending pool—enhanced by blackout fabric, careful lighting, and a CG finish—and still marvel at how they got it to be so black, so empty, while perfectly reflecting Johansson’s form. Strings whine and drone in a way that resembles a stretched-out version of the Psycho (1960) theme while sparse percussion blocks out what could be the sound of a heartbeat. Levi is pivotal to the entire enterprise: they always underscore the actions, always keep the audience off balance. The music unsettles, but more than that, its otherworldly essence pummels the viewer into an awed submission.
One of the film’s most upsetting images is of a baby left alone on a stony beach at night. We’ve previously seen its parents dive into the water—first the mother attempting to rescue a dog, followed by the father going after the mother—and then succumbing to the waves. A separate diver tries to rescue them as well but fails, and Johansson takes advantage of his fatigue to bash his head in and take him to her van. Cinematographer Daniel Landin shoots the sequence at a distance. As the biker comes to clean up the remnants of the diver, marching with tunnel-visioned purpose, the child cries and cries, like they’ve been doing so all day and will continue to do into the night. While Glazer maintains focus on Johansson, the baby resides in the corner of the screen slightly out of focus. The child’s screams dominate; it’s a piercing and overwhelming sound that drowns out even the waves on the beach, and the effect is akin to realizing how utterly alone we are in the universe, how this child might die, and crucially, how seemingly no one wants to help them. The overall effect is something like a bleaker version of Bambi (1942), but with a sort of reverse anthropomorphization of the characters.
Under the Skin depicts humanity as an animalistic force—maybe it’s been reduced to such a state, maybe it’s always been this way. People are unpredictable, unaware of the danger they face, like when a bachelorette party comes across Johansson and pulls her along as if they’re a wave. They’re drunk but their accented words blur together in a sea of overlapping voices. In a more frightening scene, soccer hooligans surround her van and beat on it, yelling for an unknown purpose. Glazer doesn’t frame the masses as a dehumanized horde. Rather, he chillingly argues this is simply what humans are to their core. Johansson may look like us, she may be able to carry on basic conversations, and she may even be able to mimic seduction, but something is always missing. Her movements and tone constantly remind us of how “wrong” she is relative to everyone else.
Under The Skin may be a cold, even cynical film, but it’s not an unemotional one. Glazer draws feeling from pure sensory experiences: Landin’s awe-inspiring photography, for one, but also through the canny use of silence, which are often ruptured by shock or trauma. When Glazer shows one of the woman’s victims floating beneath the surface, he sees another man, bloated and with a haunted expression. He initially deprives the scene of any sound, not even music—everything remains eerily still—until they try to reach out to each other and the bloated man suddenly collapses. Levi’s soundscape returns with a force, a jump scare of percussion, as the two men are seemingly disintegrated into some sort of slurry. Yet, it’s the initial silence that lends a startling poignancy, a sense of grasping for a connection before plunged back into the nightmare.
Similarly, Glazer deploys dialogue as an emotional contrast to the indifferent silence of our subject. In a tour-de-force sequence, the woman picks up a man with facial tumors (Adam Pearson) who’s hesitant to go along with her. Unlike past victims, who wordlessly disappear beneath the surface, the man actually voices his discomfort and fear, and pleads with the woman for mercy. His voice breaks the spell of the score’s shrieking strings and drones and unnerves the woman so much that she frees him. It’s his vocal refusal to go silently into the darkness that shocks a conscience into the woman.
As the film settles into its last act, something strange happens: the woman—lost in the further reaches of Scotland, hunted by the man that made her—starts to feel human. It doesn’t quite take, however. She tries to eat cake, but can’t stand the taste. She tries to have sex and discovers it may not even be possible. She depends on the kindness of a stranger only to find herself a terrified prey running from a predator. It’s only when she sheds her humanoid skin, after devolving into a frightened animal, that she reaches some form of humanity. In her terror, she recognizes something of herself in the predators. The question remains: did she ever truly understand us?
Under the Skin is available to stream on Max. It's also available to rent or purchase on Apple TV, Google Play, Vudu, and other VOD platforms.
Devan Suber is a freelance film and TV writer based in Philadelphia, though sometimes he rants about video games. His work has appeared in Polygon and Primetimer, among other fine places.