Under the Skin
Jonathan Glazer, 2013, UK
I’ve seen Jonathan Glazer’s remarkably minimal and boldly modern conquest of sci-fi territory twice now, and I love that I still can’t conclude if its central female-like entity is an unknown being from a far-away galaxy above or the ominous pinnacle of our technological advancement here below. Like the monolith itself, “she” casts a cold, provoking shadow over the sci-fi genre, a predator whose conception seemingly begins with a series of eclipsing, pristine spherical objects constituting the film’s opening sequence. This, of course, is meant to recall similarly compelling imagery from 2001: A Space Odyssey as well as conflate with the same endless inquisition into mankind that film forged some forty years ago. But whereas Kubrick used images of merging celestial bodies to connect human intellectual progress with the outer limits of the physical universe, Glazer radically abstracts them in the opposite direction as if under a microscope, suggesting an imminent hand of design as these orbs congeal with surgical precision to bestow our unclassifiable lead with what was once an inimitable human organ. Scarlett Johansson—giving an expertly calibrated anti-performance that reorients all things removed and “alien” to much closer, intrinsic places—is key to how Under the Skin successfully does just that, a mysterious sentient whose sole mission involves the collection of male bodies for a grotesque greater purpose left up to our own speculation. Scenes of Johansson ensnaring unsuspecting men amidst a black, viscous void are both delectable in their saunter and brilliant in their simplicity, rendered all the more intense by Mica Levi’s inverted Greenwood/Herrmann-esque string-heavy score. These repeated scenes and their arthropodan-like seduction and “devouring” motifs stand out as the film’s most fascinating, unforgettable, and horrifying high point. What gives us an identity, what makes us human, and why we seem predetermined to exploit weakness are among sci-fi’s greatest questions that Glazer poses in exciting ways, knowing each function far better when withholding all fundamentally inadequate answers. But make no mistake, Under the Skin is first and foremost a sensorial experience concerned with instinct and the fears around our fragile human flesh. Its inconclusiveness and respectful recollection of the genre’s lasting tropes promise this film—Glazer’s own pinnacle—will endure in our minds well beyond the grisly fate of his lonesome anti-hero, whose “own” skin gradually serves as a terrifying harbinger of the brief shelf-life shared by all organic forms.