UNDER THE SKIN (2013, Directed by Jonathan Glazer)

M. Keith Booker

University of Arkansas

Under the Skin has received some of the most enthusiastic critical support of any science fiction film of the twenty-first century, landing on many “best of” lists though it was a box-office flop, taking in just over $7 million in an era when science fiction films often bring in hundreds of millions in worldwide box-office receipts. Of course, Under the Skin was probably never going to be a big commercial hit, given its fundamental strangeness and what some might see as its excessive artsiness, even with a headliner like Scarlett Johansson to attract viewers. However, the strangeness of Under the Skin is crucial to its success as a work of science fiction, a genre that thrives on the creation of cognitive estrangement in its consumers. In addition, the “artsy” nature of the film is actually key to its strangeness, so that, rather than excessive, its artsiness is central to its work as science fiction.

Readers read science fiction in order to explore different worlds, and part of the task (and fun) of reading science fiction is to try to figure out the rules of these new worlds and how they differ from their own. Indeed, ever since the pioneering work of Darko Suvin in the 1970s, there has been a strong critical consensus that this phenomenon, which Suvin terms “cognitive estrangement,” is the central project of science fiction as a genre. For him, science fiction places readers in a world different from our own in disorienting ways that force us to think about the differences in order to get our bearings. He argues that, in the process, we potentially begin to view our own world from a fresh perspective. Moreover, for Suvin, this process is invested with strong utopian energies, giving readers the ability to imagine that their own world could be otherwise and that genuine change is possible.

It seems clear that cognitive estrangement of this sort is absolutely central to the functioning of Under the Skin. Matt Zoller Sietz, who gave the film a full four stars in his review on the RogerEbert.com website, sums it up thusly: “Here is an experience that’s nothing like yours, and here are some images and sounds and situations that capture the essence of what the experience felt like; watch the movie for a couple of hours, and when it’s over, go home and think about what you saw and what it did to you.” 

Many scenes in Under the Skin are so abstract that we are forced to work to supply our meanings to them. Others are simply so different from what we typically see in films that we have to scramble to find a frame of reference in which they make sense.And, finally, this film seems designed to deliver a message (or messages), but viewers must work to decipher the messages because the film operates so differently from the science fiction films to which they are accustomed. Under the Skin is a sort of puzzle film, and one of the many meanings of its title is that it is designed to get viewers to look beneath the surface to seek a deeper meaning. But can a puzzle film be effective if the viewer can’t solve the puzzle? I would suggest, though, that the puzzle can be solved (if in multiple ways) and that having to work to decipher the message of this film makes its multiple messages all the more effective once that work has been successfully done. This essay is designed to help with that work.

The puzzles posed by Under the Skin are of two basic types. At the literal level, there is a great deal of missing information that forces viewers to take an active role in imagining just what might be going on in the film. The film is strong on images but weak on information. Meanwhile, even if one is able to come up with a suitable hypothesis concerning what is literally going on in the film, there still remains the larger question of what it all means. Under the Skin seems to demand allegorical interpretation in order to extract its fill meaning, but it also refuses to make the point of its allegory openly obvious. I will address both of these types of puzzles and suggest some solutions.

Who (or What) Is “The Female?”

Under the Skin is a film that is almost completely dominated by a single character (played by Johansson), an unnamed woman who is not identified in the film or in the end credits, though she is referred to as “The Female” on imdb.com. This enigmatic Female appears in almost every scene of the film and almost all of the action is presented from her point of view. Indeed, the fact that we are seeing things as she sees them is emphasized several times in the film by extreme close-ups of her eye, so close-up, in fact, that it tends to be defamiliarizing, making her eye seem undefinably strange and alien. One of the reasons why some viewers find this film “difficult” is that the Female seems confused through much of the film and does not seem fully to understand what she encounters as she goes about her rounds. Therefore, seeing things from her point of view is inherently confusing. Moreover, the Female’s behavior seems so odd that is very difficult to understand her motivation or to identity with her and her project. Generally, when a film is strongly centered around a single point-of-view character, the viewer expects to and is expected to identify with that character. By featuring such a strongly centered point-of-view character with whom it is difficult fully to identify, Under the Skin creates a special kind of cognitive estrangement that keeps viewers off balance as they constantly struggle with their natural inclination to identify with the Female, despite the fact that they cannot understand her motivations or sympathize with much of what she does.

What she does, through the first half of the film, is drive about Glasgow, luring unattached men into her van and then taking them to her home/headquarters, where she begins to seduce them, only to cause them to be submerged into a strange black material where their insides are eventually sucked out, then transported away, leaving an empty bag of skin (and giving the film’s title another of its meanings). But exactly who she is, where she comes from, and why she is doing these things all remain quite mysterious, in many ways becoming more and more mysterious as the film proceeds, each new bit of information raising more questions than it answers.

Under the Skin prepares us for the strangeness to come with an opening segment of over four minutes that features tense, discordant music (composed by Mica Levi, whose score for the film won a BAFTA nomination for Best Original Music) and visuals that have a vaguely outer-space, science fictional feel without revealing much in the way of clear meaning. As with much of the film, this opening provides a number of clues but no real answers. Over the music, we can hear Johansson’s voice as she practices pronouncing the sounds of various English letters and a few words, as if she is just learning to speak. It’s an opening that announces the artistic ambitions of the film much in the manner of the overture that begins Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)[1].

After a brief cut to a title screen, we see a motorcyclist traveling down a winding road that we will eventually be able to surmise is in Scotland. The strange music and some disorienting visuals accompany his trip, but he seems to know exactly where he has going and what he is doing as he rides to a spot near where a white van is already parked. He stops and marches purposefully down an embankment at the side of the road and emerges carrying the body of a dead woman. He then deposits the body in the back of the van, followed by a cut to an unidentified setting with an all-white background that gives the scene a very abstract and indefinite feel. There, a naked woman (who looks a great deal like the dead woman), undresses the dead woman and dresses herself in the removed clothing. Thanks to the lighting, we can only barely discern that the newly dressed woman is the Female. She finds an ant crawling on the body of the dead woman, removes it, then inspects it with great curiosity, as if she has never seen one before.

This sequence is our introduction to the Female and the only information we ever get about her origins, which is very little information at all. What we have seen in the film’s first nine minutes suggests that she is part of some sort of organization and that this organization might be of extraterrestrial origin. We know nothing, though, about the purposes of this organization, though the dead woman and the apparent lack of concern for the dead woman on the part of the Female do suggest that they might be up to something a bit dangerous and possibly sinister.

In the next scene, the motorcyclist removes his motorcycle from the back of the van, while the Female enters the van and drives away on what we will eventually see is a mission to pick up a man and bring him back to what looks like an ordinary home but is in fact some sort of strange processing facility. She enters the building with the man following her and immediately begins shedding her clothing. He follows suit. At this point we can definitely see that something strange is going on. Both the Female and the man enter a strange dark space, essentially the opposite of the white space in which she had taken the clothing of the dead woman. It is almost as if the inside of this building is in some sort of other dimension, where the normal laws of physics to not apply. They walk across a shiny black floor, which the man slowly sinks into as he walks behind the Female. Eventually, naked, he is completely submerged, disappearing beneath the floor. The Female calmly walks back, picking up her clothes and putting them back on as she goes. It’s a very strange and surprising scene, perhaps a figurative way to suggest to us the strangeness of what is happening to the man.

The Female can be quite charming (and she looks like Scarlett Johansson), so she has no trouble picking up lonely men and luring them to her lair. She is not, however, a great conversationalist, and her discourse consists largely of a nodding repetition of things men have just said to her, suggesting that her familiarity with human interactions is a bit limited. Her “sexual” encounters with men, meanwhile, are entirely lacking in any sort of eroticism. Indeed, by the time they enter her building and start to disrobe, it is almost as if the men have been entranced more than seduced, making us wonder if the Female has exerted some sort of Siren-like psychic control. The men do not even appear to notice that they are sinking into the floor as they walk toward the Female. For her part, Johansson displays an unusually large amount of nudity for a major star in the course of the film, but her encounters with men are so thoroughly lacking in eroticism that her nudity mostly just adds to the enigmatic nature of her character. There is even one encounter later on when she actually attempts (rather unsuccessfully) to have sex with a man, something she seems to find confusing and disturbing, as if she has never done it before and doesn’t really understand the mechanisms of human sexuality.

Johansson’s performance in general is one of the finest of her career, and her ability to portray such an enigmatic character, so alienated from her environment, effectively is absolutely crucial to the success of the film[2]. She also performs in a flawless English accent (learned by the Female, we suspect from the opening segment, specifically for this mission). It’s an interesting choice, though, because she is not in England, but in Glasgow, so that her English accent makes her stand out as an outsider. Perhaps the organization she works for does not realize that people in Glasgow do not have English accents, but it seems more likely that they chose this accent as a way of explaining why the Female seems so out of place in Glasgow and never seems to know where she is going. Or perhaps Glazer has made the choice just to emphasize to his audience that the woman is out of her natural element. In any case, the men she encounters mostly have Glaswegian accents, some so heavy that their speech is virtually indecipherable (though she also meets men from Albania and from the Czech Republic, reminding us of the global nature of the contemporary world system)[3].

Eventually, we will get a look at the strange world beneath the surface of that black floor, where the naked men appear to hang suspended in a strange fluid until their bodies are suddenly sucked out and transported away. In the 2000 novel by Michel Faber on which the film is based, it is eventually made clear that the Female (in the novel she is named “Isserley”) is an extraterrestrial agent who is beaming men back to her planet to be processed as food, but we get no such information here. The film is purposely made more enigmatic than the novel, and it is not necessarily a good idea to use the novel to “explain” the film, given that they are two rather distinct works. So, rather than conclude that the Female of the film is collecting men for food, it is probably best to say that we cannot know her purposes in the film.

It is, though, safe to conclude that the Female is an extraterrestrial. In addition to all the clues I have already noted, there is one very clear clue near the end of the film when she is attacked and nearly raped by a logger. As he tears at her, a huge chunk of her human skin comes free and we see that, under the skin, there is a black surface underneath. The man runs away (to get gasoline with which to set her afire, it turns out), while she stumbles forward, then rips off her Scarlett Johansson face and head, revealing a smooth, almost featureless alien head and shoulders. By this time it is fairly clear that she is not human. Further, she does not seem to correspond to any entities known to exist on earth, so (by the usual terms of science fiction film) it seems safe to conclude that she is an extraterrestrial, though it is also possible that she is some sort of technological mechanism and not a biological creature at all. Of course, if one regards Under the Skin as a horror film, as many do, then she could be a demon or all sorts of things, as many creatures exist in horror films that do not exist in the real world.

Once we assume that the Female is an extraterrestrial of some sort but that we cannot finally know her purposes or those of the organization she works for, then the final question that remains is how we are supposed to regard her. Johansson’s performance, while making the Female seem distant and alien, nevertheless endows her with a certain vulnerability and sensitivity that tempts us to sympathize with her. This tendency might be especially clear in that final scene in which she is attacked and then set on fire, going up in smoke and leaving virtually nothing behind. She also seems particularly sympathetic in one sequence in which she picks up a small, shy man with facial disfigurations[4]. She is quite kind to him (he probably looks no worse to her than any other humans), which is clearly something to which he is not accustomed. Nevertheless, she takes him back to her lair and begins the usual process, but then has second thoughts and lets him go (though he is later rounded up and presumably either killed or processed by the motorcyclist). From this point forward, the Female seems confused and unsure of her mission, clearly having second thoughts—though we should also be aware that, if she is an alien, then just what her thoughts might be is probably unknowable to us. In addition, after her encounter with the disfigured man, she meets a man who seems to want to be helpful and kind. Granted, he moves to sex fairly quickly, but she does seem to invite it without, apparently, quite knowing what that means. And the next man she meets after that attempts to rape her and eventually destroys her. Thus, she herself becomes a victim in the second half of the film, which again invites us to sympathize with her—though it is also the case that she is accosted by unruly men multiple times even before her change of heart relative to her mission. We are thus reminded how predatory men can be, though there is no indication at all in the film that the Female is some sort of avenging angel seeking revenge for the wrongs done to women by men.

At the same time, through much of the film, the Female seems very like a heartless serial killer, and she can, in fact, be quite ruthless. She is probably at her worst in a rather shocking scene early in the film in which she goes to a beach and meets a swimmer from the Czech Republic. As they talk, a woman swims out into the heavy surf and immediately gets into trouble in the rough waters. A man (her husband, we will learn) attempts to swim out to help her but makes little progress. The Czech man rushes back into the water and attempts to save the man, but the man stubbornly insists on continuing to try to save his wife. The man and his wife are lost to the rough sea, while the Czech man lies exhausted on the beach at the edge of the water. The Female approaches him and calmly bashes his head in with a rock and then drags him back to her van, completely oblivious to the fact that the man and woman have left their baby alone on the beach, screaming in terror. The motorcyclist soon comes to the beach to clean up any evidence of the abduction of the Czech man; he also ignores the crying infant, leaving it to the mercy of the elements. At this point in the film, roughly thirty minutes in, the Female and her “handler” seem to have no regard or sympathy for humans at all, though that will apparently change for her when she meets the disfigured man.

By the end of the film, we can perhaps surmise that extended contact with humans has caused the Female to begin to sympathize with them and to question her mission—though that of course would be attributing feelings to the Female that she might not have. At one point soon afterward, she even attempts to eat cake, as if trying to experience what it is like to be human, but she chokes on it and spits it back up. Apparently, she cannot eat human food. In any case, she lures no more men to her lair after her encounter with the disfigured man and even attempts to have sex with another man, though that ends abruptly and it is not clear that it is even possible for her to have sex with a human. She frantically checks her crotch after the attempt, possibly afraid that her fake human skin has been damaged. By the end of the film, she seems to have abandoned her mission and gone AWOL, with the motorcyclist in pursuit, perhaps to bring her back into the fold, perhaps simply to dispose of her now that she is no longer useful. After all, the sequence involving the dead woman at the beginning of the film suggests that these agents are replaceable and disposable, whatever their origin or purpose. One suspects that a new replacement agent will soon be on the way to earth.

What Does It All Mean?

A number of different readings attempting to unravel the underlying meaning of this film have been proposed. Indeed, this is a film that cries out for interpretation but offers no clear route to a final interpretative closure. In the original novel, the motif of harvesting humans for their meat becomes a very clear and pointed satirical critique of the meat industry, but no such overt path is available in the film. One thing that almost all critics have agreed on, though, is that the film deals with gender, starting from the obvious fact that the Female’s sexually predatory missions are a gender-reversed version of a narrative frequently found in film (and all too frequently found in real life). Thus, as the Female drives about Glasgow chatting up men, the men do not seem threatened or frightened (as a woman invited to get into a van with a strange man might be) but flattered and pleased. Some of them are so pleased with themselves that they preen like peacocks. Viewing the film in this way can, among other things, create a defamiliarized perspective that perhaps allows men to get a glimpse of what it might be like to be a woman, constantly in fear of predation from men. And that is certainly an important function of the film. However, this gender reversal may be significantly more sophisticated and meaningful than it first appears.

For one thing, it goes beyond the merely thematic. Because we see essentially everything from the Female’s point of view, we see everything from a position that is gendered as female, thus replacing the usual male gaze with a decidedly female gaze. In this way, the cognitive estrangement produced by the film’s gender reversals highlights the usual presence of the male gaze—again, both in film and in the real world. As Sherryl Vint notes, “the camera remains static when it frames women, who walk in and out of the shots without prompting a reaction; yet it pans and tracks the men who come into frame, consuming them visually and pushing the viewer to notice that something is off in the gendered relationship to spectacle. Such camera work prompts us to realize how we fail to notice when it is women rather than men captured by the gaze” (2).

At the same time, Vint notes that the emphasis on gender replaces what is mostly an emphasis on species (which stands in for racial difference) in the novel. This different emphasis is one of the ways in which the novel and the film are distinctly different works and need to be considered separately. At the same time, the end of the film does shift the emphasis to racial/species differences by highlighting the alien nature of the Female. In this case, though, while the Female’s earlier predatory behavior makes it difficult to sympathize with her unequivocally, her change of heart mid-film and the shocking brutality of her demise make it hard not to sympathize with her to some extent. Both the film and the book thus undermine the frequent tendency of alien invasion narratives to depict aliens as enemy Others who have nothing in common with humans and who must be defeated in order for the human race to survive.

Importantly, though, the film version of Under the Skin ignores the easy solution, seemingly implied by its title, that humans and aliens (and, by extension, humans of different races) are basically alike under the skin once we ignore superficial differences in appearance, such as skin color. For Vint, this solution is, in fact, suggested by the novel, but absolutely refused by the film, which insists that the Female and her race (or whatever they are) are genuinely and radically different from humans. However, the film also argues that, because they are sentient, with thoughts and feelings, then the aliens cannot be simply dismissed or demonized but should be ethically engaged. For Vint, “while Faber’s Under the Skin elicits questions about whether gender or ethnic or even species difference really matters that much, Glazer’s Under the Skin confronts us with the much more challenging problem that we have to find ways to engage ethical community across difference rather than create ethical community via its elimination” (9).

The film illustrates its fundamental point about the complexity of dealing with difference in the two encounters that the Female has with men other than the ones she is collecting as part of her mission. The first of these is the kindly man who seemingly wants to help her and makes a sexual advance only because he believes she has invited it. Whatever questions this might raise about consent, the fact is that he does have good reason to believe she welcomes his advances, even though it eventually becomes clear that she is simply curious about what he is doing because she does not really understand human sexuality. When she reacts with shock and horror when he attempts to penetrate her, he stops immediately and makes no further advances. He has, however, made the fundamental mistake of not understanding her otherness. Granted, he expects her to respond like a human woman because he understandably thinks she is a human woman, but his attitude nevertheless can be taken as indicative of that “we are all alike under the skin” attitude that Vint finds to be so banal. Meanwhile, the rapey logger who destroys the Female is indicative of binary thinking that sees anyone not like him as an Other who need not be granted respect or sympathy. They are automatically coded as the enemy. And he thinks this way in terms of both gender and race. When he sees what appears to be a lone and vulnerable woman deep in the woods, he immediately thinks of raping her. When he discovers that her fake human skin hides an alien racial Otherness, he immediately grabs his gas can.

The quandary posed by these two alternatives is one that comes up fairly frequently in human relations between different cultures, genders, or races. I am specifically reminded here of Fredric Jameson’s somewhat notorious (but extremely useful) essay on “third-world literature,” originally published in 1986. Here, at a time when postcolonial studies was still a very new field, not well established in the academy, Jameson argues for the value of studying the literature of what he calls the “third world” because it provides insights that cannot be attained from Western literature. But he also interrogates his own approach, noting that, in studying other cultures, we seem to be faced with the choices of “universalism” or “Orientalism,” as famously described by Edward Said as central to the tendency of Western artists and scholars to treat the “East” as the polar opposite of Europe and the West. In short, Jameson acknowledges that, all too often, scholars have felt themselves forced to choose between assuming that other cultures are just like ours and can be judged on the same terms as ours or assuming that other cultures are totally different from ours and must be judged on their own terms, which might have little to do with the terms on which we understand and judge our own culture.

Science fiction narratives involving aliens often thematize this choice, as when the reptilian-looking alien of Enemy Mine (1985) turns out to be just like us, with racial implications that are emphasized by the fact that the alien is played by the African American actor Louis Gossett, Jr. Conversely, the tentacled aliens of Independence Day (1996) are so unlike us that they can only be dealt with by destroying them. Moreover, while the aliens of this film are  hopelessly Other, the crisis that they pose triggers a wave of international cooperation in which we discover that all humans are actually alike—in a discovery partly fueled by the fact that the lead human alien fighter is played by another African American actor, Will Smith.

Ultimately, Jameson argues that we should not try so hard to avoid Orientalism that we fall back into the universalist position of thinking that all cultures are ultimately the same—which inevitably means the same as Western cultures, any differences coming from the fact that nonWestern cultures are just inferior versions. For Jameson, then, the need to accept and respect difference trumps the need to avoid Orientalism. In its presentation of the Female, Under the Skin presents us with an encounter between humans and an alien in which the alien learns to respect humans and to stop harvesting them, however different they might be from her. Her ultimate fate suggests that many (if not most) humans have yet to learn this lesson, though the film itself potentially serves as medium through which some viewers, at least, can at least begin to learn to accept and respect the differences of others and to try to find a way to negotiate those differences in mutually beneficial ways.

Works Cited

Byrnes, Alicia. “Johansson’s Real Performance: Documentary Style in Under the Skin.” Science Fiction Film and Television, vol.11, no. 1, 2018, pp. 29–35.

Constable, Catherine. “Under the Skin: Cosmology and Individuation.” Movie: A Journal of Film Criticism, issue 7, 2017, pp. 31–34.

Jameson, Fredric. “Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism.” Pretexts, vol.3, nos. 1–2, 1991, pp. 82–104.

Seitz, Matt Zoller. “Under the Skin.” RogerEbert.com, 4 April 2014, https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/under-the-skin-2014. Accessed 16 December 2021.

Vint, Sherryl. “Skin Deep: Alienation in Under the Skin.” Extrapolation, vol. 56, no. 1, 2015, pp. 1–14.

Notes

[1] For a detailed discussion of these first four minutes, see Constable.

[2] For a detailed discussion of Johansson’s performance, see Byrnes.

[3] Most of the men picked up by the Female in the course of the film are non-professional actors, cast from the streets of Glasgow, giving the film an almost documentary feel. The motorcyclist, however, is played by Jeremy McWilliams, a world-class competitive motorcycle racer.

[4] This man is played by Adam Pearson, who has neurofibromatosis. No prosthetics were used to change his facial appearance.