Under the Skin (2013)

Poster for Under the Skin

This is a difficult film to write about without spoilers, so if you haven’t seen it yet and are planning to, you might want to skip this review. It’s probably best to see it with as little preconception as possible, although I’m sure it works fine even if you have some idea of what’s coming. I knew what the basic scenario was, anyway, even though I avoided reading reviews before I saw it.

Anyway, I’m tagging this as science fiction despite the fact that the evidence within the movie itself is extremely ambiguous. It would probably be more accurate it to tag it with some kind of higher level genre category such as John Clute’s favorite term, fantastika. One reason the film is being called science fiction is because the book by Michael Faber that it’s based on is unambiguously a work of science fiction (says Wikipedia). Writer-director Jonathan Glazer and his co-writer Walter Campbell have stripped out all overt explanations and references to who or what the unnamed character played by Scarlet Johansson, or her unnamed male colleagues, are. She isn’t human, that’s for sure. It could be that she’s alien (as she is in the book), or perhaps a robot of some kind, or who knows what. The film opens with some highly abstract and schematic visuals that might represent stars and planets in orbit, but it’s hard to say.

The basic scenario is that this female character drives around Scottish streets in a van picking up stray men (it seems to be important that they have so few social connections that nobody will miss them) and leading them on with the promise of sex to a room where they sink into a black substance. Again, the purpose of this process is never spelled out, although one sequence implies that the bodies of the men (but not their skin) are reduced to red goo. (Wikipedia tells me that in the book the captured men are slaughtered like cattle and eaten by the aliens.) Because nothing is explained, what we get is a very abstract set of images of sexual predation in an emotional atmosphere of extreme alienation and numb lack of affect. On that level it seems like yet another depiction of urban isolation and disconnection and sexual dysfunction. (Ho-hum.)

However, because of the fantastic elements that don’t fit readily into this typical avantgardist scheme it doesn’t quite reduce to a depiction of alienation. Or rather there are elements of alienation that go above and beyond the usual avantgardist critique, as in the long sequence in which the predator completely ignores the drama of a family of three dying in the background while she focuses single-mindedly on her prey. This is so utterly inhuman that it can’t be read as mere sociopathy. There’s also an interesting tonal shift when she apparently starts feeling empathy for or curiosity about humanity and her apparent resemblance to her victims. There are some fish-out-of-water comedy moments that sit uncomfortably with the horror that surrounds them.

I thought the tonal shift worked well to momentarily displace the anxiety that had been built up, even as the long time science fiction reader in me didn’t think it really added up on a logical level. But this is yet another movie that doesn’t give a damn about plausibility. It’s a nightmare about predatory sexuality and the death instinct that uses fantastic elements to create cognitive estrangement (as Darko Suvin calls it). I’m of a mixed mind regarding the depiction of sexuality as something almost completely horrific, aside from a moment or two of comic absurdity. This is the femme fatale turned up to 11 — a completely blank and dispassionate persona who seems to be pimped out by the mysterious motorcycle men who bring her to life in the beginning. Yet I’ll give Glazer credit for also showing boys with their vulnerable hard-ons (still a startling sight, even in an arthouse movie theater, in this day and age), stumbling yearningly to their doom. There’s perhaps a hint of Tiptree’s cold equation: love is the plan, the plan is death. I guess, come to think of it, the female monster is revealed in the end to not actually be female at all. But why does it only prey on isolated men? Whose nightmare is this?


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