Under the Skin

Movie Information

The Story: A mysterious woman — who is apparently an alien — prowls the Glasgow area in a white van to seduce and dispatch men. The Lowdown: Highly acclaimed as fresh and original, Under the Skin is also slow-moving and on the deliberately impenetrable side. Yes, it's the critical sci-fi sensation of the moment, but it's not going to suit everyone's tastes.
Genre: Art Sci-Fi Horror
Director: Jonathan Glazer (Birth)
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams, Lynsey Taylor Mackay, Dougie McConnell
Rated: R



I watched Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin on Friday morning. It is now Sunday morning, and I’m still tussling with what I think of it. That may be an indicator of the film’s complexity — or not. It isn’t that I don’t understand the film, at least to the degree that its wispy narrative can be understood. And it isn’t that I think the film is bad. On the contrary, I think it does a very good job of what it sets out to do. The question is whether or not I really care about what it does. Therein lies the problem. I don’t think I really do.

At first, I likened it to last year’s Upstream Color (a film I disliked intensely) with better production values, but then two people who liked that film and disliked Under the Skin said they were nothing alike. I’ve seen it compared to Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) — a film I love. I see where they’re getting the connections, but The Man Who Fell to Earth has a dramatic arc and characters we care about. Under the Skin has very little of the former and none of the latter. The Man Who Fell to Earth is finally a tragedy. Under the Skin is finally … well, nothing much except deliberately impenetrable, slightly depressing and vaguely creepy. However, a lot of my critical brethren think it’s the bee’s knees of art-movie profundity. Some people I know will think that, too. I am not a true believer.




This is not grounded in a dislike of filmmaker Glazer. I liked Sexy Beast (2000) well enough, and I think Birth (2004) is close to greatness. Under the Skin isn’t much like either of those. If pressed, I’d say it’s nearer to Birth, but that’s a stretch. Its story, pared to its basics, concerns some kind of alien (though I suppose it could be supernatural) life form (Scarlett Johansson) that prowls around Scotland — specifically, the Glasgow area — in a van searching for victims to seduce and do something barely comprehensible to. We see what she does more than once — she leads them into some black place where they are trapped beneath the surface of some black, oily substance that she can walk across. We never know what the point is, who she is or why she’s doing this. She rarely speaks. (When you’re an alien disguised as Scarlett Johansson, it requires little to lure men into your van.) The other characters don’t say much either, and since what they do say is usually in the thickest Glawegian accent, it’s mostly incomprehensible.




There is a vague dramatic structure — mostly concerning the alien apparently trying to become human. Unfortunately, it transpires that she is physically unequipped for most basic human functions. There is also a pretty much out-of-nowhere ending that doesn’t really settle anything except the fate of the alien. In the meantime, there are weird motorcyclists, like updates on Death’s henchmen in Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus (1950), who follow her. There’s a strange, almost touching, encounter with a man suffering from a disfiguring medical condition. But whether any of this adds up to anything of genuine note is going to be a very personal call. It is all certainly atmospheric and unsettling. Individual moments — like Johansson being swept up in a mob of women going clubbing — are marvelous. If I was still 17, I’d probably take the approach of, “I don’t understand the point so it must be art.”  Maybe that’s the best approach, but I’m not ready to embrace it. Rated R for graphic nudity, sexual content, some violence and language. 

Starts Friday at Carolina Cinemas

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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13 thoughts on “Under the Skin

  1. Me

    I just recently watched Sexy Beast, and wow Ben Kingsley in that was incredible. If its half as good as that film i will be happy.

    • Edwin Arnaudin

      Some of the visuals are better. Overall, it’s about 10% as good as Sexy Beast.

  2. Ken Hanke

    If you go into this thinking it’s like Sexy Beast you are going to be sorely disappointed.

  3. Ken Hanke

    As long as you aren’t expecting the same kind bristling dialogue, action, or pace. It’s more like Birth in tone, but even that’s misleading.

  4. Ken Hanke

    I’m not sure I’ve ever seen Species, but it is really slow with minimal dialogue that mostly doesn’t matter? Does it never explain what’s going on? Does its ending pretty much come out of nowhere?

  5. Me

    Do you know anything about streaming release dates? I’ve got this on my Amazon watch list as a preorder, I figured it would have been available by now.

  6. Ken Hanke

    I doubt it. Not that I follow streaming, but this isn’t from one of those outfits that tends to stream things before they’re out of theaters, which seems a very sensible move on their part (I mean on this outfit’s part).

  7. Ken Hanke

    I never understand these things, but then the chances of me watching this again are nil.

  8. Me

    So i made the trek and I’m so glad I did. It’s a technical wonder and that scene with the elephant looking man was a gut punch.

  9. Ken Hanke

    A technical wonder? Well, you got more out of it than anyone else I know.

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