Under the Skin is an erotic nightmare directed by Jonathan Glazer, and starring Scarlett Johansson. The movie is filled with many a metaphor and provoking imagery that it demands an in-depth analysis. Remember that there is no precise answer to the events of this movie, but only inferences. So here goes:
A small bright dot is seen, accompanied by an eerie humming, which expands soon to a series of spheres and circles moving among each other, in a very planetary fashion. While this may seem like the birth of a planet or some mega space event, this is more likely her birth or her being planted on Earth and taking on a human form. This is revealed by the following sequence of an iris, dilating as a mumble is heard, of someone mouthing various words, adapting to the language of the planet. A biker is seen dragging a seemingly lifeless woman from the side of the highway, which is then brought to a perfectly white-blank room, where we first see her, stripping the body of its clothing and donning it herself. We also witness for a brief second a singular tear drop trickling down the lifeless face as she seems to be staring at the new woman. She then drives off in a van waiting for her, as the biker drives away.
We then follow her into a crowded mall, where she observes people going about their lives, and absorbs as much, as seen by her applying lipstick to her own lips. We continue to follow her through the streets as she talks to random men, pretending to be lost, all the while scouting for men who have none to answer to. It is crucial that her mission remains unknown to the human race, hence her intent of trapping such men. She is an observer, watching intently yet calmly, as she goes on her hunt, without a trace of emotion shading her pale face. This is impressed even more by the intermittent gaps of conversation which seems real and alleviating of the tension, which flows all the while. The constant noise we hear that is similar to jumbled radio signals could possibly be her thoughts or just her comprehension of the human data she is receiving. The coupling of such a chilling score warning of imminent danger with the scanning eyes of a placid face make the film seem even more unearthly than it already is. Once she finally picks up a man, he is taken to her abode; to a room that is now black, as opposed to the previous white, signifying a birth-death duality. In a most fatal seduction, she moves slowly but rhythmically, as if to a dance beat, leading her entranced prey by their sexual desires, as we see him lower into a pool of dark liquid that consumes him beneath in an eternal matrix. This is her hunting stance, which is painted in a most symbolic manner, a trap where only the two of them exist to the both of them, as both lust for the other, the man through his sexual desire, and the woman on her hunt. Having set up her first conquest, she moves onto the next one, who she meets at a nightclub, and is again taken back, and one erotic sequence later, we get our first glance within the black liquid, as the second man watches the wailing first man, whose body meat seems to have reduce alarmingly, his skin drooping over him like a robe, until he is vaporized before the second’s eyes.
Next is a swimmer visiting Scotland whom she chats up at the beach. In an unexpected turn, he swims to the safety of a drowning woman and man, but ends up failing in the quest, all the while being watched intently by her. This is possibly her first encounter with a human emotion other than sex, of sympathy. But this hasn’t wavered her in her mission, as the scene goes on to become one of the most disturbing in this piece filled with fatal mating rituals and graphic digestion. As the swimmer lies on the shore, struggling to catch his breath, she unnervingly bonks him on the head with a rock and drags him, in the sight of the orphaned baby whose parents just drowned. This is one scene that impressively shows just how emotionless she is; alien to the human nature that surrounds her. The biker is again seen taking away the belongings of the man, again not giving a second glance to the baby. This confirms that he is one of them, probably an overseer of the mission. This singular scene of action ends with a most disturbing image of a baby wailing for its parents, but left alone on the dark shore. This is depictive of human emotions calling out to her, enticing her to indulge, foreshadowing the events to unfold. There is a scene that seems disjunctive and misplaced, the biker is seen examining her who is standing still and motionless, like a robot being examined by her maker, which is very close to their relationship. This is the overseer examining her for signs of emotion, the human disease. On the road again, she receives her next taste of humanity as she sees the blood on the rose that is delivered to her. She sees that humans are accepting of self-inflicting pain, in order to make a living.
The hunt goes on, and it is harder to find prey, and finally ends up picking up a deformed man. Her ensuing interaction with him is of extreme import to the plot, as she, being alien to human judgment of beauty, talks to the man in a way he had possibly never been talked to, before. Her mind does not perceive the deformity as hideousness, but it is just another man. Further, being from an alien race of form different to that of a human, all humans look weird, with no standards of beauty or ugliness. Therefore, she proceeds to seduce him just as she has all her other prey, with not a single wince. It is clear that there is no disgust in her mind, and this is understood by the man, whose doubt turns to trust. This emotion of trust accompanying the rising sexual desire is clearly seen by her, and she is startled at this foreign sensation. She proceeds to do the same to him as she did to all the others, but this time, the trap is not shown, as more important is what comes thereafter. As she is about to leave, she notices a fly trapped by the window, and this catches her eye, and transfixes her. In the moment of weakness, induced by the vulnerability of emotion, she gives in and releases the man. He then runs off, only to be confronted and dealt with by the biker. The result of the previous examination is seen here, as the biker is now in constant watch, right there to take care of any mess. He sees the creeping disease riding her mind and which he knows will eventually lead to her demise.
She then starts off on a different kind of hunt, not for the human prey, but for human sensation, which she now craves. The sexual desire in the men she picks up is mirrored here in her desire. She walks through the streets, now infinitely more observant of human nature and behaviour, conversations and food, being startled by each one, until she feels crowded by the humanity around her and growing inside her, and she falls. This is her first taste of pain, as she stays down, not understanding this new sensation, as well as indulging and exploring it, rendering her motionless. She finally turns up at a cafe, where she tries out the second sensation, that of taste, which she already observed intently in the general crowd. She is equally scared and seduced by the thought of the cake, depicted by the slow, shaking manoeuvre. This is extremely ironical as this is exactly how the men she seduced were also lured, scared yet at the same time transfixed on her pure sexual beauty. But within, underneath the skin, she is not of this Earth, and therefore unfamiliar and incapable of processing human taste, resulting in her spitting out the delectable piece of cake. Confused and in fear of what is invading her mind, she thoughtlessly stumbles into a bus, where she meets a kind stranger who offers to help her. Now she begins to see the side of men that is not riddled with lust, the side that feels compassion for his fellows, a concept entirely foreign to her. She sees the connection in how the flower seller was willing to inflict pain in order to make his livelihood to the present man willing to go to troubles to care for another human. This thought invades her entire being, and she proceeds to explore this unimaginably sensitive world. We next see her staring at her bare naked body, enchanted by it and observing every curve, not with the predatory eye that we have seen before, but filled with desire and interest. This is where she almost completely changes, allowing human character to flood her as she begins to understand our concept of beauty, and how desirable she is by that standard. She starts to fall in love with her own skin, and decides to venture even further. The kind man shows her around local places, gaining her trust, and caring for her, as is seen by that one motion of carrying her across the puddle. She feels the affection flowing from him, and decides to try replicating the same, in the ultimate act of sex, to which she beckons all her prey but never lets them have. It is made painfully clear that she cannot find her place within human sensibilities, and that she would never feel the pleasure of sex, by the startling jump she makes and the examination of her genitals.
After this experience, she ventures out into a dark forest, where she meets a man who warns her of danger in the forest. She is unnerved, and furthers into the maze, presumably wandering in desperation for her inability to feel, and the crisis she is under. She is also trying to hide from the biker, who she knows will not sit still seeing the changes that have come over her. She finally seeks shelter in a cabin, where she falls asleep; possibly the most human we have seen her through the movie, nothing indicative of the fact that she requires sleep, which is primarily an Earthly sensation. This simple act of slumber tells us that she is no longer that alien form she once was, she has been corrupted by humanity and is now on the run, desiring to hold onto emotions. She accepts the human skin as her own and decides to go on this way, in this world, all thoughts of her mission forgotten. She is rudely awoken by the man she saw earlier, in an attempt to rape her. The minds of men are blinded by lust. We now see an emotion on her face that contrasts to the earlier scene where her van was being attacked by men. We now see in her a certain violent panic, considering the possibility of actually getting hurt. She runs in this newfound fear. Finally, he catches up and gets a hold of her. Driven to hunger by her sexuality, he begins to rip her clothes off, and as he does so, she flails and struggles to get free, something she would not have done before. But now, her skin has become too valuable to her, because it has gifted her with indulgence in forbidden desires. It is very eerily silent, as speech and cries are not yet second nature to her. The man then tugs at her bare skin, which gives away to reveal a pitch-black, lifeless surface. Fear, being the stronger emotion, overpowers the man’s lust and he runs away, as far as he can from this creature which has suddenly become ghastly to his eyes. This is metaphorical as all of us are seduced and driven into lunacy by sheer physical beauty, but as we begin to tug at the skin, what lies beneath constantly frightens us and we in turn despise it. We run away. The focus is then shifted back to her, sitting still, with a curious expression on her face. The skin is spoilt and has begun to droop and stretch around the face. It is of no use to her anymore. She then begins to peel it off, exposing the emotionless, icy black form of the alien, reminding of the dark liquid. The face she had been wearing this long now in her hands, staring at her with shimmering eyes, we are compelled to drop a tear for the alien. The still-living depiction of the face shows how the skin itself was absorbent of all emotion and that is what inflicted itself on the alien. She watches as the emotion and sensation that she craves now laid staring back at her, now unattainable. The pain she feels for this loss is painted in her human face, a projection of her thoughts that remain skin-deep, while her alien form remains placid and devoid of any expression. It is at this point of extreme vulnerability that the man comes back with spirit and drenches her, following it with setting her on fire. There is no pain, no cry that exudes the alien form, now completely stripped of the human skin, as it wanders out into the open snow, falling face down a second time, the flames consuming her. The biker is seen watching all this from afar, waiting to extract the body for the next hunter. It is now that we realize that the female body we saw in the opening sequence was the last hunter to have fallen prey to human desire, and ultimately consumed by that human desire itself. The tear that we see trickle down from that first body is enough to clue us in on the cause of her death too. The movie paints a very poetic image in comparison of the demise of the alien form with the death of her victims within the pool, leaving only the skin. A hunter being seduced by the very nature of her prey, ultimately consumed by the same desire that led her victims to their ends, indeed a most apt tale!
Beauty is a dangerous thing, both to desire and possess. There are twin themes explored in this movie, one of the destruction caused by self-indulgence in desires of the skin, and the other a critique on how society views people around them, mostly the powerful preconceptions of conventional beauty. There is a reason the aliens are depicted as hunter, as we the hunted, for they are devoid of all emotion and the human desires that drag us down. This position changes once this pure alien also falls prey to the seduction of the skin, thus being hunted by us who fear anything that doesn’t confirm to conventional thought.