Rarely have I so enjoyed a film as confounding and purposefully elusive as Under the Skin, Jonathan Glazer’s critical hit of 2014. Ordinarily, a plot this murky and a narrative this incomprehensible would make me grow weary and frustrated almost immediately; instead, I sat rapt in Scarlett Johansson’s sensual performance and the eery beauty of this extraterrestrial tale.
Set in Scotland, the film follows an unnamed woman (Johansson) who drives around urban locales, picking up men and taking them home. That home, it turns out, is an abstracted pitch black lake of viscous liquid. As the woman walks on its surface, stripping her clothes, the men follow, sinking slowly into the darkness and disappearing before our eyes.
It turns out our mystery woman may be an alien, and she may be consuming these men, though whether it is for her gain or the purposes of the men on motorcycles who follow her around remains unclear. Confused yet? Things really don’t get much clearer than that.
The film’s narrative branches outside of our woman’s van pick-ups about two-thirds of the way through after she encounters a man badly disfigured by a genetic disorder (a la the Elephant Man, John Merrick). She is the first woman he has ever touched intimately, and their scenes together are the first real emotional respite from the film’s overwhelming cold-hearted nature. Eventually, she leaves the van behind and wanders into the countryside, encountering a man who may actually be interested in pursuing her in ways that stray beyond the physical.
The most satisfying pieces of the film, then, come from our alien protagonist’s moments of self-realization, encouraged by her interactions with men. When they are allowed the chance to exhibit something beneath their surface, the woman’s response begins to come less from her mission—whatever it may be—and more from a growing attachment to this living, breathing human form she inhabits.
At least, that’s what I took away from Under the Skin. While the narrative is listless and evocative, it does not become weighted down with strange occurrences or curveballs that would distract from its directness. In that sense, it is easy to place one’s own interpretation onto the film without the fear that Glazer may, in fact, just be fucking with you. It’s a serious film, but its interest lies more in atmosphere, sense of place, and sensuality (along with their consequences) than in metaphor or pretention. Not to mention it is gorgeously shot and scored, with both its land and soundscapes marked by striking, otherworldly details.
Check out the first seduction scene on YouTube—which features brief nudity, FYI—to see just how strange, unnerving, and beautiful Under the Skin‘s unique take on the extraterrestrial genre is.