Discovering Humanity in ‘Under The Skin’

It seems like once in a lifetime where a movie comes out that transcends human life – a movie so beyond understanding, artistic form, and the human language – that whatever can possibly describe something so quaint, abstract, romantic, and extraordinary cannot do it justice. Under the Skin is all these and more, proudly and happily unconventional and unorthodox from the dire and dreary first frame. Claustrophobic, eerie, and nightmarish, but at the same time, beautifully expresses its love for humanity and soul. Written and directed by Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast, Birth, The Fall), 2014’s Under the Skin is altogether alien and human in a horrific and romantically-charged story of mankind and the untold mysteries within. Under the Skin will stand the test of time and has been the greatest thing I’ve experienced, both fictional or otherwise. This is truly something out of this world.

Among the Skin

Hands down, this is the hardest film I find to talk about. Discussing Under the Skin in any amount is begging for spoilers. Talking about a single idea, theme, or frame begets massive spoilers and an otherwise prestige experience considered tainted. I implore those that don’t know what this film is to turn away immediately and watch the film for themselves. This is a love letter to the film that understands human life moreso than most films seem to in the 21st century. 

It starts with an eye, staring deep into darkness. A man speeds down a highway on a motorcycle. The man stops at a ravine and enters the blackness on-foot. The man pulls out the inert body of a young female and sets her body in a van. We then cut to a white, endless void. That person is on the floor. But there is another Woman. The Woman undresses the lifeless one and dons her clothes. A single tear falls down her face; the lady we presumed to be dead. The Woman examines an ant on her finger, her first-ever contact to a living creature on Earth. The Woman is mesmerized. The man and the living Woman are together, until he leaves her with the van. The Woman drives to Glasgow, Scotland. The Woman obtains makeup and expensive clothing. The Woman is beautiful, and she knows that fact. There, the Woman lures men into the van and they drive off. The men become addicted to the Woman like a drug, hypnotised by her spell, and latching onto her raw beauty. The Woman invites the men into her liquefied, mute hellscape. The men become entangled and stuck forever, alone and helpless. Their flesh is consumed by the spider. The men are never seen again. The Woman shows signs of love and emotion, but it is a manipulation. But the longer the Woman is on Earth, the more she is consumed by humanity. The Woman longs to know more about humanity, even in a cynical, dark, twisted up world. The Woman feels love, but ends up alone. The Woman is then consumed by a cruel world that does her harm. The Woman is no more.

A criticism I see of the film is a lack of real plot, and there seems to be an improvident understanding of what defines a “plot” in some circles. Just what exactly is the contrast between plot and story? A plot typically has a beginning, middle, and an end. Take A New Hope. It tells the story of a young adventurous boy named Luke Skywalker who travels with rogue Han Solo to rescue Princess Leia from the tyrant Darth Vader. They hatch a plan to free her from his clutches, and after a successful rescue, they initiate an all-out attack on the planet-destroying Death Star, and succeed. A simple, yet engaging plot for a single film. However, the whole world is littered in story. Mad Max: Fury Road has a paper-thin plot, but every frame is filled with story. Story is a never-ending, ever-evolving puzzle box of ideas and emotions that carry the plot. The plot of Blade Runner wouldn’t quite work if it had a different story. Plot is limited, while a story is forever-expanding.

Under the Skin follows suit. Though often manipulative in its simplicity, it lacks a real general plot. Yet it presents a world unknown to us. A world that is equally quaint but ominously familiar, a world that is about as alien as the Woman we are introduced to. And that’s what she is: an alien. An alien we understand nothing about. Images that stick with me like a first viewing, fresh in my mind like a projector playing the movie in my head. 

If the first half is an ominous, eerie, and confrontational Rubik’s Cube of images and thought-provoking ideas, then the second half becomes something different. While first a frighteningly original and masterful sci-fi horror film, the second half delves into something wiser and more humane. The city the movie sets itself up in is cold, cruel, and cynical. The more bodies she consumes and the longer she lasts on Earth, the more the Woman learns about humanity. She develops Love. Empathy. Mercy. After saving a man from her own clutches, she goes on the run. She wants no more of this alluring, threatening life. She wants to become human since she understands their weaknesses, their strengths, their worst fears and feelings. She wants more of it. And the motorcyclist is on the hunt for her.

That’s when The Woman meets a man in the countryside, and although she remains distant and meek, the man develops feelings for her. And as does The Woman. But she had to leave. The Woman understood she does not belong. She enters the woods, encountering a friendly logger that tells her where to rest. She follows his commands, and sleeps in a small cottage. The Woman awakes to see the logger caressing and groping her sleeping body. The Woman makes an escape for it. The logger chases suit. The Woman thought to be unstoppable with her charm and words, someone who was dangerous, a hunter, a predator. She has become scared, hunted, and a prey. After all, she is now merely human.

The logger catches up to The Woman and tears at her clothes. She escapes his clutches, but her skin is torn off. The logger is horrified at the sight. A black figure among human skin. The predator runs off. The Figure stares at her torn body. The mask that was The Woman breathes and blinks back. The logger returns, dumping gasoline on The Figure. Though she tries to once again escape, she becomes ignited. She falls and burns to death, unable to hurt anyone again but able to no longer see the wonders that human life could have given her. The motorcyclist cannot find her body and leaves. Whatever his mission is, it’s finished. He walks off in defeat. We look at the snow, falling like ash amidst a fire.

The Woman, who encountered the good and the bad of human life. The dangerous and superficial side of life of lust and power. The side of life that is caring and full of love. The side of life that treated her as a mere object for pleasure. The side of life that treated her like a human being, offering her flowers, their hand, and help when she falls. She witnessed it all, and I can only hope the good left the bigger impact for her.

Scarlett Johansson stars in her most revealing and vulnerable role to date, bringing life and depth to a character we know nothing about. Deceptively minimalist and reserved, Johansson gives off impactful emotion to a character with nothing more than her simple eyes. Scarlett Johansson as the Woman — the predator — can become shy, awkward, envious, and tactful in a moment’s notice. Unpredictable in her dangerous nature yet divine in her subtle complexity.

There would appear to be a common theme involving mirrors. Mirrors, after all, are used to see ourselves for who we are. Mere reflections of what we see.

She is ready to hunt.

She is dangerous.

She is on the prowl.

For the first time, she recognizes her reflection.

She realizes the liberation that is the female body. She becomes truly free.

What Makes Us Human
A tour-de-force of unpredictability and emotional powerhouse like no other, Under the Skin is silently profound. Especially haunting scenes include the quiet beachside of tragic proportions, and the web-like void that her victims see themselves helplessly trapped in. Very loosely based on the book of the same name by Michel Faber, Jonathan Glazer instead does something different. He makes the story his own, a sensory experience of love, fear, and tragedy. There is quite literally no movie like it, or one that has given me the emotional impact that Under the Skin has offered to me. A movie that I hated at first, but grew to understand and fall in love with more and more after each viewing. If that is not cinema, well then I’m not sure what is.

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