The Two Halves of "Under the Skin"
A note: This article is written in mind for those who have seen the film Under the Skin. It contains spoilers.
I first learned about Under the Skin through my inbox. I got a press release about the eerie, ethereal soundtrack by Mica Levi. I’m always keeping an eye out for film and music to review in the pages of Bitch, and I took note of the film starring Scarlett Johansson that lacked any other identifiable co-stars. But I’m not just looking for films about women, I want ones that are directed by women too, and a quick glance through the rest of the email proved that it was directed by one Jonathan Glazer. As I do with these types of films (or all-dude bands), I moved on, content he would get press elsewhere.
Weeks later, when the film hit theaters, I began to hear more about Under the Skin—It’s like feminist sci-fi! She’s like an alien that preys on men! But the end will surprise you! I began to second-guess passing on the film—after all, men can direct feminist films, and this sounded like one that would pass muster. At the very least, I knew there was something going on with this film and I went to check it out.
Although I knew from the write-ups I had read, the opening of the film lets you know the other-worldly origins of Johansson’s character. Ethereal spheres of light shrink and expand, a woman’s voice distortedly pronouncing English words.
It was hard to not immediately think of Her, Johansson’s other recent non-Avengers project, in which she voices the operating system Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with. The premise of Her—man finds ideal mate in female robot programmed to cater to his every whim—had me more than skeptical entering the theater. But I found the film shifted halfway—the OS matured beyond her human partner, literally operating on a different level than her partner and eventually leaving him behind. For me it was a satisfying end to a potentially problematic film.
Under the Skin, however, seemed to do the opposite. What started off as a potentially feminist film fell into a tired fairytale.
There are many reasons why the first half of Under the Skin is successful—one was its element of the unknown. We know Scarlett Johansson is an alien, we know she lures men into her big white van. We don’t know what she’s going to do them, nor to what end. We also may know that Glazer filmed actual men on the street—non-actors, unaware of the taping—giving the audience another delicious lick of intrigue that, along with Johansson’s dark mop, tickled us in its trickery.
Through Johansson’s alien, we see Earth as a foreign planet. In one shot in a shopping mall, the audio builds up in a suffocating wall of sound. You feel surrounded by humans but can’t even make out the words or language they’re speaking.
There’s a similar degree of disembodiment, albeit visual, when Johansson is driving the van. Instead of your average filmic shot of a city’s hustle and bustle, we zero onto unsuspecting men with a calculating eye. This is where I found the film at its most subversive. From our high seat in the van, we feel protected and disguised, as impenetrable and unrecognizable as Scarlett Johansson in a cheap fur coat. It’s a sick kind of power—not one I would define as feminism, but definitely one that women don’t get enough of on film or as viewers. When else does a viewer ride shotgun with a predatory female gaze? Certainly not in the real world. But in Under the Skin, we’re allowed to see a pack of young, inebriated white men and view them not as potential threats, but as potential victims.
Once Johansson’s alien has landed a male—one who accepts her offer for a ride, or come-on at the club—she brings them back to a murky, dark lair. What happens then—Johansson seducing the men by slowly undressing, leading them deeper into a dark unknown—is another reason the first half of the film is so great. We witness an other-worldly event, a set that wouldn’t be out of place in a music video (Glazer’s specialty), one that works surprisingly well set against the gritty Google-maps vision of Glasgow. My heart thumped wildly when we did finally see the fate of her captives—it’s a haunting, awful scene, its most horrific aspect perhaps that we do not understand it.
I keep calling her Scarlett Johansson. I could call her “the alien,” as other reviews have done, but I think that gets at a problem I have with the film. We are told she is an alien; we know that technically, she is an alien. We know that for all her flirtatious words she is cold in her execution. She can’t be human—did you see her walk away from that crying baby on the beach?
And yet as viewers, we haven’t ever seen anything “alien” about her. She looks like a young human woman, and the many close-ups and reflections we get of her face seem to emphasize this all the more. When we watch a young woman in acid-washed jeggings we do not see an alien, we see a young woman in acid-washed jeggings, which in some way actually makes her a woman in acid-washed jeggings. (Apologies for whatever media-studies theory I am no doubt butchering.)
Which is one reason why the second half of the film flops for me.
Halfway through the movie, she essentially leaves her alien, skin-harvesting, soul-sucking duties behind and cuts out on her own. Gone are her creepy alien trappings—there’s nothing linking her to predatory past except her mysterious Motorcycle Man accomplice (once cleaning up her messes, he is now is trailing her through the Highlands) and the fact that she can’t ingest chocolate cake.
What accounts for this change? Certainly not that baby. Instead, one of the men she seduces is physically deformed, which she realizes only once he’s in the van. Like many disabled characters on screen, he is depicted as someone to be pitied—her seduction seems to rest on the fact that he has never had a girlfriend, that he can’t believe his luck for ending up with her. The other-worldly huntress somehow “breaks” when it comes to disabled virgins, and she lets him go, seemingly having a change of heart.
Up until this point in the film, I had felt like I never knew what would come next. Now I found myself disappointed to find this refreshing female character turn on a dime, all because of a well-worn trope about people with disabilities—that they are somehow more pure and sympathetic simply because of their disability. In fact, the only reason people with disabilities should be “pitied” is because of the way able-bodied society and institutions have failed to accommodate them and treat them as fully realized humans (or in this case, as fully realized humans for harvest). On a side note, Adam Pearson, the British actor who plays the man and who has neurofibromatosis, has written about characters with disabilities on screen.
After that scene, she strikes out on her own, leaving her night rides behind. Instead of her indifferent gaze, she now just seems lonely. This is where and why I think it’s important to emphasize who and what we’re watching on screen, regardless of what we “know” to be true about the character’s origins. From this point on, the film follows a broken, confused 20-something woman tramp around rural Scotland and relies on several familiar narratives.
For starters, there’s Prince Charming, a be-sweatered gent who finds her on a bus and takes her home where he chastely puts her to bed and brings her a cup of tea. They go on walks in the countryside, he carries her across mud puddles, literally brings her to a castle, and of course, never lays a hand on her. I found this part of the film very boring—it vacillated between rom-com (after so many duds she’s finally found Mr. Right!) and “stranger in a strange land.”
It’s difficult to figure out what she feels about him, we’ve never seen her care for much before. But we do see her care about sex. Eventually, even though it’s not clear how many words have been exchanged between, she and Scottish Sheriff Truman hop in bed together. But before they can do the deed she jerks out of bed, grabs a lamp and holds it to her crotch. I wasn’t sure if she was discovering the presence of a vagina or the lack thereof. People seem to think she didn’t have one. Regardless, my reading was that she becomes distraught that she cannot have penetrative sex with Prince Charming. What kind of feminist film is this? Bitch Online Editor Sarah Mirk read this scene differently, as she notes in her review—that's one thing I appreciate about the movie: viewers can draw many interpretations from it.
Then she’s off on her own again, now for the second time. Is this what sets aliens off? Pity for the disabled and being unable to please your man?
Now comes the really icky part of the movie. She awakes in a wilderness refuge to find unwanted hands on her body. Bolting, she’s pursued by the man through the unfamiliar forest. We’ve come a long way from that cold calculating eye from the van. My heart was pounding again, but not because I was watching a frightful, outer-space soul harvest, but because I was watching a young woman get sexually assaulted. If there’s one trope that we’ve seen enough of—if not on screen then in our real life—it’s this. I’m am not saying this is not something that shouldn’t be depicted on screen—I think it can be done well—but this is not something I want to watch, and there is nothing original about it.
This is the climax of the film—an attempted rape. We now see just whose skin she is under. Yet I can’t help but feel many of us—let’s say, 50%—understood far earlier in the film. The alien's embodiment of a human woman had been deliciously powerful before, and now it was uncomfortably familiar. For some of us, there was nothing big about the big reveal.
There’s something poignant in the end—her attacker killing something he does not understand. The film ends with ashes falling from the sky like snow. We see the Motorcycle Man pause mournfully and remove his helmet. We now understand that he was never trying to contain her—he only wanted to protect her. Johansson’s alien has gone from an outer space seductress to a woman in need of saving.
Earlier in the film, there was a scene where Johansson’s alien had pulled her van into an empty lot after spotting a potential victim. We see him at her window, speaking loudly through the glass, though we can’t make out what he’s saying. Suddenly, there’s another one on the dash, then another one on the roof. She’s under attack, ambushed by a group of violent men. Her face seems to register this fact, but nothing more—no panic, no fear. She coolly puts the van into drive and pulls forward, leaving them behind. This, for me, was the real feminist sci-fi. An escapist vision of a world where women can simply shift gears and drive away from violence and assault, unscathed and unfazed.
Related Reading: "Orphan Black" is the Sci-Fi Thriller We've Been Waiting For.
Kjerstin Johnson rarely goes to the movies anymore, but when she does she has a lot of thoughts. (Don't get her started on The Grand Budapest Hotel). She is the editor-in-chief of Bitch magazine.
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