Through the Void: on Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin” (2013)

A stylized shot from Jonathan Glazer's "Under the Skin", depicting an alien (Scarlett Johansson), in profile, at the beach.

Jonathan Glazer might not be the greatest director still active, but his filmography is surprisingly varied, considering how relatively few films he’s made compared to the other top dogs in the business. His third film, Under the Skin, further estranges itself from the others in terms of its subject matter, and while it may be his weakest film (particularly in light of its finale) it still bears an unmistakable Glazer imprint, and, like Birth, manages to carry itself most of the way through in spite of an outlandish premise.

But not so outlandish, really. We’ve seen alien sci-fi before, but what distinguishes Under the Skin from other such movies is its distinct style. There is an almost Kubrickian detachment from its genre elements, an arthouse stylization that mixes a strong sense of formalism with authentic guerilla filmmaking.

Now, I’ve never been the biggest Scarlett Johansson admirer, and that’s not because I think she’s a bad actor—on the contrary, I’ve only ever seen her be passable to good. Maybe it’s simply due to the fact that I watched a lot of those Marvel blockbusters and I’m used to her being utilized as kickass eye-candy and not much else.

Under the Skin, however, showcases Johansson in a role that requires remarkable restraint without at the same time quite coming across as a dull mannequin. She plays an alien come to Earth under unknown auspices, but who spends the majority of the film preying on young men in the urban sprawl of Glasgow, Scotland. It drives around the city in a moving van and lures the men (normally single, unattached, i.e. liable to be forgotten/easily missed) into abandoned buildings whereupon they are transported to some secreted chamber or pocket dimension built by the aliens. Once successfully lured, the men are harvested for their innards, as well as their skin, which is ostensibly used by the aliens in order to disguise themselves.

If that sounds a little horrifying, it is, and Glazer certainly does not shy away from the gruesomeness of the acts: in one unnerving scene, a man’s body literally pops as he is fully drained. But more remarkable than the horror is the style: these chambers are dark spaces void of any distinguishing feature save for how the floor shifts to a viscous black liquid that the men are subsumed under. It is an incredibly simple design that perfectly conveys the alienness of these beings, as if the film itself is unable to convey the exact mechanisms of their technology and can only show the bare essentials.

The bulk of the movie involving the alien’s hunt for men is its best. Glazer’s choice to use the real city and populace of Glasgow (either as non-professional actors, or random citizens filmed with hidden cameras who were asked afterwards for permission to use the footage) is a good one, since it lends a haphazard rawness in stark contrast to the more studied formalism Glazer deploys elsewhere.

It is immersive, yes, and also really adds to the creep factor of the alien’s hunt, seeing completely normal people filmed unawares—and specifically isolated/targeted by the camera. There is also a nice synchronicity to the casting of Johansson and her role. Filmed right at the outset of the Marvel phenomenon, the out-of-placeness of the character is especially apt, as it is quite jarring to see a bona fide Hollywood movie star operating a lorry through Glasgow. This is the effect, however, that Glazer and his team were gunning for. The filmmakers’ slipping in of Johansson and crew into the unsuspecting crowd (many of whom didn’t know that it was her, or if they did recognize her, simply didn’t believe that it could actually be Scarlet Johansson they were talking to) mirrors the extraterrestrials’ own clandestine infiltration.

Also quite chilling is how Garland frames the aliens’ lack of empathy in the narrative: a key scene in which this is highlighted is when a husband and wife, at the beach, drown themselves in the tide trying to save their dog and each other. The camera (standing in for the alien) watches this matter-of-factly, impassively, as if it were as natural, as inconsequential, an occurrence as a wave or falling rocks. When it is discovered that a small child has been left behind on the beach, dangerously close to the water, the entities’ total indifference to his well-being says more about their alienness than anything else in the film.

After this, however, Under the Skin opts for a more conventional storyline: when the alien chooses a man with deformed facial features (Adam Pearson) to prey upon, it examines itself in a mirror for a long time and eventually decides to let the man go. Then, there is a journey of self-discovery, as it abandons its mission to do things like eat food for the first time, or have sex with a man sans death-trap.

A semi-clothed Scarlett Johansson in Jonathan Glazer's "Under The Skin", attempting to lure a man to death.
Scarlett Johansson lures a man to his death.

Things, of course, go wrong. It despises the taste of food, and sex ends up being impossible. Then, as it is being pursued by its alien handlers, an encounter in the woods with a human predator unmasks the alien, and the horrified man pours gasoline on the entity and burns it alive.

All this is done solidly, well-paced, and distanced enough from its own goings-on so as to not indulge in any potential mawkishness. But it is very predictable, and the ending sort of flatlines – we understand that the alien has learned empathy (or at the very least has become interested in imitating it), and perhaps even seeks human love to fill the void of its own existence, yes, but after that? The viewer (or this viewer, at least) does not come away with any appreciable takeaway of the narrative save for a sort of morbid disappointment.

We’ve simply seen the fish-out-of-water trope done countless times before, so to tack that onto an, at times, genuinely disturbing psychological/erotic thriller was unwise. (Granted, this might not be all on Garland, as he adapted the film from a novel by Michael Faber.) And the ending, which seems like a horrible just-deserts type conclusion for the alien—the hunter becoming the hunted, and all that—at the hands of a rapist, with the final scene being that of mutely falling snow on the burnt corpse and then on its alien handler…again, opportunity missed.

It should be said that there have been some academic treatments of the film engaging with its existential and/or feminist and/or gender theory themes, which may or may not be interesting in their own right. That it is enough of a serious (and good) film to warrant such philosophical engagement is clear; however, the presence of those themes, and the strength of the film at its best, is not quite enough to redeem its closing portions.

But I will close, on a more positive note, by recommending the film on the basis of its score alone, courtesy of English musician Mica Levi, whom Glazer chose to compose for his new Oscar winner The Zone of Interest. The Under the Skin score is electronic, atmospheric, by turns filled with dread and malice and then by the possibility of something higher. Like all good scores, it never really calls attention to itself, save for when the moment (usually some key emotional turning point) calls for it. I’d go so far as to say that Under the Skin for the most part is carried by its music and sound design (and its interplay with silence), as they are absolutely vital to the immersive experience of the film.

That Glazer and his team, even for a comparatively weaker entry, can create a work of such note attests to his status as a leading artist in world cinema.

* * *

If you enjoyed this review of Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, consider supporting our film on a great American poet and get patron-only content on Patreon. This will help the growth of this site, the automachination YouTube channel, and the ArtiFact Podcast. Recent episodes include a discussion of independent filmmaking,  a debunking of black conservative Thomas Sowell, and an analysis of the Roman mythos in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra.

More from Ezekiel Yu: Whirling Girl: Review of Sean Price Williams’s “The Sweet East” (2023), Man-Child: Reviewing Jonathan Glazer’s “Birth” (2004)Their First Small Beginnings: On “The Wind in the Willows”