Because I am an adult and make excellent life choices, I decided to see this movie at 2230 on Sunday, even knowing that it would mean getting less than five hours of sleep before work on Monday. Because I’d heard wonderful things about it, and I have yet to see something that involves Scarlet Johansson that I haven’t loved to pieces. And the concept behind the movie also sounded so interesting–psychological thriller about an alien stalking Glasgow and doing terrible things to unsuspecting human men until she discovers some inner well of humanity? Sign me up.
I have no idea now, why people are calling this movie a psychological thriller as opposed to horror. I’m guessing because (at least in America) it’s not horror if it doesn’t involve jump scares and copious amounts of blood. Well, I don’t watch a lot of horror movies because I don’t really like either of those things all that much. But they also don’t really tend to leave me feeling fucked up for hours and days afterward. I claim Under the Skin is horror because it managed to fill me with existential dread for well over a day and kept me from sleeping. The last movie that did that? Kairo. The original Japanese horror movie, not that shitty American…whatever it was.
There is nothing about this movie that wasn’t fundamentally disturbing. Scarlet Johansson spends a lot of time staring at the world with dead eyes…except when she’s attempting to lure a hapless (and completely lonely) man to her exceptionally creepy and very water-damaged house. I can’t tell you precisely what happens to the men because it’s never explicitly stated, but it starts out with naked, boner-sporting fellows sinking down into a bottomless pool that the alien simply walks across like it’s solid, continues on to them being sucked out of their goddamn skins so literally there is an empty fucking skin floating in the water, and ends with what sure does look like ground meat and bonemeal slurry going down a chute.
The dialog is minimal, which only leads to the feeling of complete unease. The score is not going to win any prizes for beauty, but it does what it’s supposed to do with efficiency, which is make the audience feel intensely unsettled at every possible moment. The score was composed mostly of sustained chords, which were incredibly discordant and became less so as the alien experiences her shift in personality. The movie takes its time with long scenes, not terribly unlike the alien walking slowly backwards as she lures men into the dark room where they’ll ultimately get turned inside-out for the the crime of just really wanting to fuck a pretty woman. (A pretty woman, I’ll note, doing one of the least sexy strip teases that has ever been put to film.) It’s long, and drawn out, and at times you want to beg it to have mercy and just. Fucking. Stop.
But it is, by the way, fucking gorgeous. Large portions of this movie could easily act as a tourism advertisement for Scotland; forests and shorelines and the countryside all have their moments to shine. Except for the bit where the take home message seems to be: Come to Scotland, it’s a magical place where you might be picked up by a woman in a molester van and then get liquified after 24 hours of terrifying captivity on a bottomless swimming pool.
One thing I found interesting was the amount of nudity in this movie, which surprised me considering the R-rating. Full frontal nudity of both the male and female variety, and much of the male variety involved erections. But I think it’s because I’m used to an R-rating meaning lots of violence. That’s the American way, right? And there is really very little actual violence in this movie, for all it involves men getting sucked out of their own skins. There’s one really horrible scene at the end–an attempted rape that leads to something even more awful–and the rest of it is disquietingly non-violent and unsexy both. This movie refuses to offer you relief from the horror of what is happening by making it titillating in the slightest.
Continue on if you don’t mind spoilers:
I also expected some sort of alien discovering humanity narrative, which was implied by the reviews that compelled me to see this movie. I don’t think it’s nearly that simple. There is a glimmer of the alien creature played by Johansson at the very least discovering inner agency and deciding that it wants more than to just drag men into death by their erections. She does release her last victim into the wild, though I question how much that is about saving him so much as assuaging a pang of guilt, considering he’s left to wander naked through a field, where he’s ultimately caught by one of the other aliens and murdered.
But everything that happens after–the alien tries to have a piece of cake, the alien tries to have sex with a human–just act as reminders that whatever is wearing Scarlet Johansson as a skin, it’s not human in the slightest, and it will never be human. It’s something wearing humanity as a skin and trying out the behaviors with little ultimate success.
And then at the end, during an attempted rape, the attacker partially tears the skin off the alien and leaves it staring at its own disembodied, borrowed face, which it has spent a lot of time inspecting in the mirror. It ends with not a revelation of self, but the rapist returning, dousing the alien with gasoline, and setting it on fire.
That’s the end. There is no redemption. And I think that adds to that feeling of complete discomfort, because we’re used to aliens finding their inner humanity. We’re used to seeing stories of redemption where someone might have done bad things, but they save the cat (though that’s really supposed to happen in the first act) and continue on to redeem themselves completely. Yet then you consider how many people this alien has caused to die, and there is some kind of really uncomfortable symmetry to see one predator–now weak and confused–get killed by another.
Unsettling. This movie is very, very unsettling.