Sexy Beast-director Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (2014) is an immeasurably tense, if mesmerizingly languid, science fiction thriller. Told from the vantage point of a seemingly cold, predatory alien, the film explores humanity at both its best and absolute worst. It allows us to view ourselves from a distance, removed from the context of our daily lives and presented instead as cattle who are led to slaughter by a race capable of playing on our natural drives. Under the Skin is a hypnotic and disturbing portrait of the human condition, one that left me sitting on my couch in a daze with eyes bulging and jaw agape—speechless. It’s an honest-to-god masterwork of science fiction cinema, but, I should caution, it’s a far cry from what anyone might deem “fun” or a “good time.”
The film follows an alien who, disguised as a human woman (Scarlett Johansson), cruises around Scotland in a delivery truck, picking up men and taking them back to her alien lair, where she harvests them—for lack of a better description. What makes Under the Skin so immensely stimulating for me as a viewer is the difficulty I have in explaining the things we’re shown in any specific sense. As told from the perspective of an alien, one whose frame of reference is vastly removed from our own, the narrative approaches humanity as a curiosity at best and leaves the alien’s activities and aims almost entirely to the imagination. To that end, we are privy to alien technology that goes completely unexplained. And not understanding the purpose or function of the technology used to harvest the men in the film imbues the picture with terrific emotional intensity. Yet it the events depicted play out at an often Tarkovskyan speed, which makes total emotional sense. After all, what the alien does is normal for her. What we perceive as some sort of horror show appears to be but the alien’s job, and seems for her at times to be little more than the sort of dull, slow, and often exasperating daily grind that defines many of our jobs.
Then again, that could just be me reading too much (or too little) into the alien’s endeavors. And it likely is, for we’re given so precious little to go on. Neither the wholly absorbing performance from Johansson nor the deliberately vague narrative provided by Glazer affords us any explicit answers… about anything. We gather at some point in the film that the alien has tired of leading hapless men to their horrific demise and, it seems, realizes something of her own humanity (perhaps due to extended contact with the men she harvests or maybe the result of some entirely unknown influence, I can’t say). She then embarks on a journey that is every bit as captivating and horrifying as that which preceded her self-realization.
Truly, Under the Skin is as effective and affecting a film as you’re likely to ever see. It’s by no means a joy to watch, I’ll give you that. But it does provide viewers with enough material to keep our innermost gears turning for hours on end as we ponder the significance of this unique and unsettling cinematic experience, which is far more significant than being entertaining, artistically-speaking. And make no mistake, this is science fiction at its most artistic—a contemplative exploration of humanity in the tradition of those science fiction masterpieces of Stanley Kubrick and Andrei Tarkovsky. In other words, it’s well worth the hell it puts you through.
Under the Skin is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Lionsgate Home Entertainment. The release includes a digital copy of the film and boasts a multi-part making-of featurette by way of special features.