Under the Skin from Jonathan Glazer

This is a unique movie definitely worth watching just for the simple reason that you probably never seen one quite like it before.

Jonathan Glazer’s third movie took 9 years to develop. It is loosely adapted from Michel Faber’s novel. it is a marvel visually and musically. The main actress Scarlett Johansson delivers probably her career’s best performance.  It made it to the list of BBC’s 100 greatest movies of the 21st Century.

This movie is either hated because it can leave some of the audience frustrated with unanswered questions or loved for the same reasons. It is the type of movie where you are left to take whatever you want from it.

It opens with a black screen which lasts a few seconds as if to put you in the atmosphere of foreign unknown territory. Then, a piece of stressful music with saturated violins starts.  The camera zooms in on a light that seems to be coming from an eye or a lens: something you are not quite sure if it is organic or synthetic.

Maybe that constitutes the whole interrogation of the film: what is human or alien inside and out? What’s under the skin?

The story

You hear a woman (Scarlett Johansson’s character) reciting some syllables in English (probably learning the language). Then, you see a mysterious motorbike man retrieving what seems to be a corpse. Then, Scarlett Johansson’s character appears and strips the dead woman and takes her clothes to put them on. You can see “the corpse” shedding a tear as the passing of the torch operates.

From then on, you wonder who these characters are.

Scar Jo’s character starts looking for a victim in the streets of Glasgow.

She targets single men and attracts them in some sort of void composed of black goo.

*spoiler section*

As the movie progresses, you realize that she and the motorbike man are not humans. Also, you understand that she probably lures the victims for him so that he can harvest the humans’ organs with leaving only their skin behind.

But as she brings another victim (the man with a deformed face) to the “void”, she refuses to accomplish her deed and let him go.  Could it be that she was touched by his despair for human touch?

From then on, you witness a transformation operating with her character. She becomes more self-aware, looking at her reflection in the mirror (or more precisely at her eyes as this symbolic is omnipresent in the movie).

She flees and meets a man who is willing to help her. At times, her body seems to start malfunctioning (she collapses in the street, has difficulty going down the stairs). Is it the fact that she wasn’t “fed” by the motorbike man that causes this weakness or her emotional awakening?

You can see she is trying to be human or at least understand them. She is mimicking humans trying to eat cake or to have sexual intercourse but quickly realized her anatomy is different and does not allow it.

Later on, the story goes full circle when she becomes the prey of a lumberjack who attempted to rape her. During the assault, her skin sheds and reveals what’s underneath: her black alien body.

The assaulter runs away while she looks down at her mock human face winking at her. The rapist comes back and put her on fire.

Her death mirrors the one of the woman she strips down at the beginning of the film.  Was she also an alien getting victims for the motorbike man? Was she executed by a human who discovered who she was or by the motorbike man because she didn’t want to serve him anymore? Did she malfunction to death?

The film ends on a white screen made of Scarlett Johansson character’s ashes and snow, echoing the black screen of the beginning.

The actors’ performance

The interpretation of Scarlett Johansson is impeccable as she explores who she is or who she could be.  In the beginning, she does her mission and doesn’t care about humans. Her turning point is when she released one of her victims and becomes self-aware. This evolution is very clear in her acting and she does without many lines; she does with her facial expression and body language brilliantly.

Most of the actors are non-professional like the motorcycling man or the victims which gives an authentic feel to this sci-fi movie.

The themes of the movie 

The film explores several themes:

1) The focuses on eyes

The first shot of the movie is of an eye assembling. The motorbike man stares at her in the eye after she attracted her last victim, to see if she is still servile to him or not. When she rebels and becomes self-aware, she looks at her eyes in the mirror. Could it be that the eyes reflections of what’s on the inside?

2) Mirroring

The black goo is literally a mirror or the appearance of one as it transforms when the men undress and fall into it.

Scarlett Johansson’s character mimics human behavior to attract her victims.

On several occasions, she looks at herself in a mirror and gets aware of herself. The motorbike man also looks at himself in the same mirror in the abandoned house.

The mirroring is also shown in the way she was a predator but becomes a victim. The last scenes mirror the earlier ones when she is driving her van looking for prey. The lumberjack says the exact same lines she said to her victims and eventually the roles reverse: the human is the assaulter and the alien the victim.

The mirroring is also shown in the loneliness both species experience.

3) Loneliness

She is operating alone (the motorbike is just there to keep a close watch on her) and preys on lonely men. As soon as they mention a family member or a girlfriend, she switches target. When humans are alone, they are vulnerable. But so is she. Maybe it is why she understands her last victim because she is also alone and desperate for “human touch”. The man who helps her when she hides is also alone as is the man who assaults her. There are multiple motorbike men but the main one is mostly alone pursuing her. Does loneliness cause such distress that you either become a victim or an assaulter? Is being alone a human anomaly?

4) The fact that appearances are misleading

It is very confusing contrary to most movies where bad and good are clearly defined, to understand who is a threat and who isn’t in this film.

She seems to be attractive to men and not threatening despite having all the signs: she is alone at night, driving a van offering free rides and asking personal questions. If it would be the man with the deformed face acting this way would he be also perceived as a not dangerous? Probably not because he explains that he was bullied all his life.

Aliens know humans are deceived by appearances that’s why they need their skin to hide the alien black skin of Scarlett Johansson’s character to attract them. As soon as a human saw underneath, he burnt her.

The man she meets on the bus seems to be a creep and the bus driver tries to protect her but he turns out to be actually nice to her (herself didn’t see the threat in him in the first place).

At the beginning of the movie, you also think aliens are “bad” and humans are “good” but as she tries to run away from her task, she becomes the victim and a man kills her.

This movie is not black and white (even though the imagery very often is).

It blurs the difference between alien and humans as well. Which brings you to what constitutes the human condition?

5) Human Condition

What defines being human?

In the movie, some humans help, some assault her, some get killed and one even kills. So it is not their “goodness” or decency that defines them.

She preys on lonely men but as she gets to know them she becomes self-aware and tries to explore her own existence. She tries to act like a human to see if that fits her: she tries to eat cake but vomits, she tries to get closer to a man and have sex with him but can’t.

Biologically, she is not human and never will.  For the motorbike gang, it is the human biology that is so special: they are after heir flesh/organs/blood.

But “under her human skin”, she starts to experience emotions. Are emotions what makes us human?

The first woman that is shown in the movie (the corpse they strip) shed a tear as she dies. She was probably an alien as well and Scarlett Johansson’s character replaces her. She also seems to have awakened to human emotions. Scarlett Johansson’s character didn’t feel anything at first and even is insensitive to a crying baby left by his dead parents.

When a group of men starts to ruffle up her van to assault her, she drives away but is not scared.

Later on, after her rebellion, she becomes scared, cold, and vulnerable. You can feel her distress as her assaulter is chasing her to rape her. She dies in pain like her predecessor. Isn’t mortality what also defines the human condition? In dying, maybe she finally accomplishes the full experience of being human.

The directing

Visually, the shots are sublime (and I am not talking about Scar Jo nude scenes^^). The way the prey scenes are filmed, the contrast between white background scenes or pitch-black ones, the red lights scenes, the filming of Scarlett Johansson in the fog, and the juxtaposition of her body with the forest she is trying to take shelter in, are truly stunning.

These very sophisticated shots contrast with the “raw” images of the city, showing the dichotomy between humans and aliens, science fiction & reality.

On the sound department, the music alternates between complete silence and saturated sounds (as she goes shopping in the airport mall or in the nightclub) or high pitched stressful violins music as to signify an alien is on screen.


Everything is done to make you stressed and intrigued. Just to accomplish that, is a success as a sci-fi/horror movie.

The film is certainly more poetic and philosophical than factual, and might not satisfy everyone. It raises many questions that the audience needs to answer on its own. But is a must-see film,  just for the experience of something new and truly special.

Let me know in the comments what you thought of the movie and what your theories are about the signification(s) of the movie!

If you would like to know the next movie for the club, subscribe to the newsletter!


Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments