Explainers

‘Under the Skin’, Explained

Updated August 1, 2018
27 min read

‘Under the Skin’ remains to be one of the most underrated movies of all the time. The audience response to the movie has been underwhelmingly overwhelming, so to say, and the movie has been subject to attention either for some naked encounters (guess who poses nude, several times) or to pass it as a regular “alien” movie with a lacklustre plot –  perhaps for those who didn’t follow the layered premise. It would be interesting for many to note that the novel-based film based on Dutch author Michel Faber’s novel took a good decade to conceive and develop from what was a mere concept and a relatively very simple storyline as claimed by the author himself. Clearly, all the credits go to the directorial ingenuity of Jonathan Glazer and his signature filmmaking.

And moreover, it is a news to me that a movie that has made it to the list of BBC’s 100 Greatest Films of the 21st Century still bombed at the box office, maybe because, to put it rather bluntly, we don’t deserve a movie like ‘Under the Skin’ yet. Deserving or not, here it is, ‘Under the Skin’ on a platter in front of us and it is but obvious to state here that the movie is highly subjective and open-ended on the outset and it has been left to a viewer’s discretion to interpret the movie in a way s/he wants to, to a very large extent. Presenting to you, one such interpretation from a very mediocre mind. Here’s a peel by peel of ‘Under the Skin’ for your perusal, and needless to say, if you haven’t watched the movie yet, SPOILERS ALERT!

“Technically Speaking”

Unlike other horror or sci-fi movies, this one seems straight up from the 80s – abstract, polymorphic references, minimal use of CGI and most importantly, a scintillating cinematography. Be it the opening sequence or capturing the scenic beauties of Scotland or the leading lady herself, the genius of British cinematographer Daniel Landin says it all. Perhaps there’s much more to what can be seen and perceived than what is actually visible, ‘Under the Skin’ not only defies the tenets of regular cinematography and the power of a camera, it goes way beyond to redefine what abstraction is.

Like I had mentioned before, due credits also go to the English filmmaker Jonathan Glazer for the conceptualization of ‘Under the Skin’ from a cinematic point of view, who returned after his debut ‘Sexy Beast (2000)’ followed by ‘Birth (2004)’. While ‘Sexy Beast’ has often been regarded as one of the best British crime dramas, ‘Birth’ was greeted with mixed responses from critics and audiences alike. Incidentally, Glazer has also co-scripted the screenplay of ‘Under the Skin’ along with Walter Campbell, and many have called him the Stanley Kubrick of the modern era, with lesser ventures yet bearing more weight. The score composed by Mica Levi is eerie and dramatic throughout the film, with higher and lower registers alternating with the necessary shrinks and the signature “roars”, but not to the extent of being monotonous or heavy on the ears. The score essentially signifies the “alienated” part (similar to what Hans Zimmer did in ‘Man of Steel’ to an extent, during the “terraformation” part) while maintaining the humanoid nature of the film’s premise, thus literally articulating the premise through notes. Mysterious, scary, quivering, and yet maintaining a singularity on its own, the music can be aptly termed as “otherworldly”.

Scarlett Johansson has given a performance of her lifetime, perhaps her career’s best and one of the most underrated, wherein she occasionally speaks in a British accent, amused and excited to meet strangers (who’re mostly her victims eventually) and perhaps for the first time has done a little more show of “skin” than her previous works. Her hourglass build has portrayed her in the most “human” form possible, yet her expressions and her performance have rendered her as an alien – layered deep, confused yet content, and with a mission vested within her mind. The mysterious biker, along with the other victims have been performed by non-actors and were shot candidly, meaning they aren’t your regular star performers but are real people with real-life problems. The biker, for example, is a non-actor and a racer in his real-life.

To summarize, there is not a single department that disappoints and the resultant is as good as a sum that is greater than its parts.

“Long Story Short” – The Premise

From a lay man’s point of reference, to start with, there’s a woman who, whilst driving relentlessly through the streets of Glasgow, Scotland, meets up men who are purportedly her victims. The woman is an alien (although it is not clearly revealed to the viewers until at a later point in the movie) and presumably, she is harvesting humans for their organs. Subjectivity would be an understatement right from the opening scene, given she has a character that is layers deep, so to say, she doesn’t appear like what she really is and vice versa. As she drives across the streets of Glasgow, talks to and victimizes single men to give in to her beauty and sultriness, she also takes interest in knowing about their personal lives as she lures them in. Again, there’s a motive here – a clear and a thoughtful one.

Perhaps she uses her words as a mere tool for her redemption. She leads them into a void (which is mostly inside an abandoned house or sometimes in her van, though it is not very clear every time), while they strip down to reveal themselves in their actual self as the victims start submerging into what appears to be a pool of sorts, their organs are harvested while the skin is visibly the only remaining thing, as they continue to drown while following the woman and visibly lusting to her naked sensuality. The woman tries to explore her sexual side too, but given the fact that she isn’t a human (which is almost entirely implied by this time in the movie), she couldn’t accomplish what she had wished for and soon becomes a victim herself when a lumberjack tries to molest her. Upon seeing her real skin, he burns her using fuel after being visibly shocked and scared of her. Just before the ending credits, we could see her dark naked body burning up to ashes and falling back on earth like snowflakes.

“The Eye, The Man, and The Van”

The opening scene easily raises a lot of questions in the mind of an “alien” enthusiast. There’s a small dot-like appearance which grows in proportion until the time it becomes clear that what we’re really looking at is essentially a human eye, though the process looks a lot like a camera lens disassembling and snapping back together again. All the while, a woman’s voice practices syllables and phonetics of the “human” language, similar to voice coaching, thus the assumption that the woman could be an otherworldly being or has never spoken in her lifetime. Cut to the next scene wherein a biker is speeding through the convoluted roads, stopping by a van and going down by a ditch on the roadside.

The man could be seen carrying a woman’s body into the closed van that has been parked on the roadside. In what appears to be either the inside of a van or a void which “visibly” is much larger and spacier than the inside of the van, a naked woman (portrayed by Scarlett Johansson) could be seen disrobing the now dead woman and putting on her clothes, item by item, which obviously don’t fit her well (yeah, I am observant. Deal with it). That follows her intrigue for an ant she finds on the deceased woman’s body.

There are a lot of questions that come to the fore. Who’s the biker? Is he a handler or an enabler of sorts? Where’s the “transaction” of the so-called robe-exchange happening? Where did the naked woman come from? Why the van? Who’s the dead woman? Was she a “vessel” too? What’s the larger incentive?

Interpretation – The man could be actually the one calling the shots, perhaps he’s inheriting it from his bosses “above” him. The women are the vessels, his means to an end. The larger plot is to harvest human organs to satiate the evil designs of aliens, perhaps these organs serve as an exotic dish for them or they’re a source of energy or are used for research purposes, hence the inexplicable expertise in donning skin all over the body. Another explanation could be that because only the skin is left out after the supposed harvest, that is the only re-usable organ to victimize earthlings, without costing a thing. Notably and technically, skin is the largest human organ. Presumably, there has been a KIA (the dead woman) and we could see the biker retrieving the body of one woman, and essentially passing the baton to another to forward the mission. The van is their medium to enter the void which is mostly elsewhere and not within the van itself as the common perception could be. The van is essentially an enabler in a true sense, which also helps the supposed women be under the garb of their concealed identity. The alien is never seen exiting the van immediately after the void’s scene, rather she is shown at different places altogether all of a sudden after entering/exiting the void. Also, her lack of knowledge towards life forms (and mostly human males later on) is denoted by her fascination towards the ant she finds on the bare naked body of the deceased. That also establishes more or less the fact that the biker is also an alien and isn’t from this planet, only they have a different “profession”.

“Lights Out”

The brief and almost unnoticed moment when we see a bunch of moving lights above the clouds could be an explanation for the set of events that took place in the previous scene. Perhaps the incumbent alien was “delivered” recently by the mothership and this very moment establishes the fact that more or less, the three (the biker, the woman and the deceased) in question have to have a connection with the otherworldly beings. Like mentioned earlier, they might be one of those “first contact” persons with the alien race that is humanity.

This scene also represents the alien race’s apprehension towards their comrades, which is why they chose to hover around for some time (presumably till early in the morning) even though the “transactions” had taken place overnight. Or perhaps they were waiting for something bad or terrible to happen? As open-ended as that is, we don’t know who or what they were, as this was the only point in the movie’s narrative when an alien ship was actually shown but no direct references have been made.

Another interpretation could be that the alien mothership actually landed on top of the building shown and immediately after, the alien could be seen climbing down the steps, presumably of the same building. It can be assumed that the void was somewhere on top of the building and the gateway or the portal was inside the van. I’d like to keep all the options open.

“Close Encounters of the Third Kind”

After the alien ship passes by, she (the alien) could be seen climbing down the stairs of a building and entering the van and assuming control of the driver’s seat, while the biker could be seen exiting the van with his bike from the rear end and departing. With the camera switching between the first person and the third person, the alien could be seen on a relentless prowl on the streets of Glasgow, after making a pit stop at a shopping mall and buying herself a change of clothes and cosmetics.

The following points are notable at this very moment –

  1. She needs to establish her identity as a normal yet enticing female human being.
  2. The biker can be and possibly will be on her trail.
  3. Alluring looks can be as important as her survival on the planet.
  4. Accommodating to the new setup and species is going to take a while.

First Encounter (Not a Victim) – As she pulls over near the corner of the street, she asks for an “M8” to a lad, a location she perhaps came up with to start a conversation. The chap who’s on the younger side tries to explain the directions to her in a thick, almost incomprehensible Scottish accent, she asks if she’s keeping him from something. To which, he nods and tells her that he’s going to meet someone. She starts driving again after thanking him. He’s been “compromised” in her dictionary.

Second Encounter (Not a VIctim) – She pulls over again, this time speaking to another man who is not shown in the frame, only the alien and her expressions. She asks for the post office and where it is and during the small talk, she finds out that the person has a family living nearby. Cut to a second later and the expressions on her face turn cold and she starts driving again.

Third Encounter (Victim Zero) – A man who’s in his late 30s tries to help her with the “M8” address and falls into the honeytrap when she offers him a lift. It would be noteworthy to mention that she makes sure every stranger she meets is all by himself, isn’t obligated, and/or is not a family man. He further reveals that he lives alone and he likes it. In the next moment, he’s gone (presumably dead) and yet she continues her prowl by herself. It appears as if the cut to the next frame was deliberate but is replete with ingenuity. It also subtly represents the dexterity of the alien to continue executing the task at her hand.

Fourth Encounter (Not a Victim) – A person named Andy stops by her van (she deduces his name by the means of a tattoo on his hand) and immediately starts driving abruptly, away from him after a small talk, because someone calls up his name. By this time, the viewers have successfully established the “single men” hypothesis highlighted in bold letters above. Her change of expressions and the switch between happy to conscious and friendly to poisonous doesn’t even take a split second.

Fifth Encounter (Victim One) – Though she’s had a Victim Zero, the victimization wasn’t very obvious. The pace at which she finds people to get inside her van is indicative of her desperation, in a way, also to satisfy her masters. As the music raises its shrill, and after she’s arrived at a conclusion that the man next to her seat is the one, she lures him into an abandoned house with pitch dark ambiance with no visibility apart from those two. As she walks forward towards infinity, disrobing herself one item at a time, indicating her interest in mating the person, he follows suit, visibly filled with lust and possibly hypnotized. The place seems to be “void” of anything but darkness, hence the name I prefer for the dark, eerie, and cold place – The Void.

“Skinny Dip”

As he undresses completely while following her trail, he starts submerging into the floor, in what looks like a pool of water. Once he’s completely in, she walks back, collects her clothing from the floor and starts on her prowl again.

Interpretation – The victims are possibly hypnotized to follow her into the abyss and follow or repeat what she’s doing – e.g. walking infinitely, disrobing, and maybe considering her likeness as a mating ritual. The pool rules the void and one of the decisive factors to be completely inside the pool is to be completely naked and unless the victims aren’t, they would walk the surface. The nudity, however, doesn’t seem to affect the alien as much, but only vulnerable human males.

Sixth Encounter (Victim Two) – She’s on a beach shore where she meets with a diver of sorts. There’s a family of three (husband, wife and an infant) who’re on the same beach in what looked like a picnic. She notices the wife going after their dog who has gone too deep inside the water and the husband follows his wife, leaving the child behind. By the time when she concludes the diver could be her prey, he runs ashore to save the husband and his wife. He successfully drags the husband’s body to the shore, but it isn’t clear whether the woman’s husband is alive or dead. The diver survives, only to be hit on the head with a rock by the alien, who then drags him all the way across the beach to her van while the baby is left abandoned on the beach, weeping and wailing. The biker finishes off fast by collecting all the belongings of the couple while leaving the baby behind, who could be seen cribbing. Then comes the news of a missing family in one of the broadcasts.

Interpretation – The biker is evidently hand-in-glove with her and is consistently on her trail. Secondly, the aliens have an utter disregard for human life, for they treat humans as mere resources in their greater endeavors.

Seventh Encounter (Victim Three) – She enters a nightclub and meets a man who she saw earlier while driving. It doesn’t take much time to lure him into the “Pool of Redemption” as I’d like to call it.

“The Pool”

By the time the third victim enters the pool (being only the second victim who is shown entering it, given that the diver wasn’t shown explicitly as to where he went), things become clear on what the void is and how it works, despite raising a lot of questions:

Interpretation 1: The void typically is present across abandoned houses which the woman has no difficulty in finding.
Interpretation 2: Apparently, she creates the void within these abandoned houses or perhaps she has them created already across many houses earmarked across the town, which seems like least of the possibilities.
Interpretation 3: The voids and the pools are mere illusions residing in the brains of the victims (and ultimately transitioning to the viewers as such) and have no connection with the reality whatsoever.

“Blast from the Past”

As the victim enters and submerges within the pool, we get to see what’s “inside” for the very first time. Things become more or less Grayscale, and the third victim sees another person who is visibly bloated (perhaps due to the longer time spent inside the pool) but looks as if he’s not dead. Not yet. The mystery bloated man tries to touch our current victim, but all of a sudden, his insides disappear with a loud bang and all we get to see is a dead sheath of skin with hair intact, floating lifelessly in the fluid.

This is immediately followed by a blood-red thick fluid (possibly the harvest) flowing into a slit, maybe it was the alien delicacy after all. Or maybe something so abstract that most couldn’t follow.

Many questions arise – what about the victim who was already inside the pool? Is he the diver the alien held captive from the beach? Most possibly he is. Is he one of those victims who was never shown or one of them captured by the biker? The question looms without any further avail.

Eighth Encounter (The Lucky One?) – Call him disfigured, call him terrifying or don’t call him any names, but this chap has to be the luckiest of all the victims so far. Not only the alien tries to bond with him at an emotional level, apparently, she also doesn’t want him to be one of the victims. From “Entering the void” until the signature “skinny dip” being common, the man doesn’t die after all. As the alien examines herself in the mirror, with her eyes speaking louder than the background score, she leaves the abandoned house (which had the void) and so does the man with a “different” face, bare naked.

Somehow, her handler, the biker comes to know of this and starts his pursuit towards this last victim, who is now seen crossing a field and moving towards another place, while being “very” naked. The biker eventually intercepts him, dumps him inside the trunk of a car that he’s possibly broken into and then embarks to find the alien woman with three other bikers (that is shown at a later point in time in the movie).

“Cat’s Outta the Bag”

The biker, who’s also the so-far an established handler of the alien, has come to notice her reluctance in “turning” people in, given her increasing and deeper understanding of human emotions after the so-called victimizations. The following could be the reasons on how she’s turning out to be more and more human with each passing moment-

  • The Thorns and the Roses – Perhaps she visualizes human blood for the first time when a street flower vendor hands her a rose, telling her it has been given to her by one of the fellow drivers across the street. As she accepts the rose, she sees blood and looks disturbed at the sight of it, even though the blood wasn’t hers. An interesting thing to note here is that she hasn’t bled so far. Does she have blood running in her veins? Under the Skin? Maybe or Maybe not.
  • Eyes in The Mirror Dimension – She seems to have a strong connection with the mirror and eyes, the way she “stalks” herself on many occasions – during her encounter with her last victim, before her first sexual encounter (though shortlived and unaccomplished) when she examines her naked body in a life-sized mirror, or when she sees consistently happier people in a reel running before her eyes. When she confronts the biker for the first time, eye to eye, we could see an understandable intensity between both of them, ultimately leading the biker to leave the void in disdain, while she was luring in another victim into the abandoned house. At later points in the movie, the biker seems to have understood she’s no longer his accomplice or is servile anymore, and hence perhaps does nothing remotely to save her towards the end. Her tripping and falling while walking on a busy street, yet not reacting to it with an emotion (usually pain or fear) definitely proves the fact that she is averse to human emotions yet.
  • The encounter with her last victim with a deformed face, along with her attachment to him spills it all, as the victim doesn’t get to drown himself filled with lust or hypnotized, rather, he runs free to see the light of the day. only to be apprehended by the biker moments later.
  • Shedding of the fur coat and switching to the pink also signifies the fact that she’s slowly but steadily letting go of her alienated identity and wants to establish as a human first. Rather than being a mere hunter of sorts, she wants to be more open to doing other stuff on the planet.

“The Mist”

The “Man with a deformed face” ordeal is followed by a hazy scene, wherein the alien is in apparently some sort of highland with haze and fog, while the biker is now looking into the same very mirror which was looked upon by the alien. Once done, the biker appears hazy himself, given the fact that relying on the alien is no longer an option, for she has definitely “turned” to the human side. His aide can no longer be trusted, which brings us to the point in the movie when the alien was “hired” in the first place.

There could be many possibilities on why the present alien “harvester/abductor” was recruited – the previous lady could’ve turned like her, given the fact that she was visibly crying before her death, or she was “terminated” before her mission was accomplished to make way for her replacement. The biker’s disdain can also be explained by the fact that he has to slowly and steadily give up on this aspirations, given both his recruits have turned to the other side and are no longer his accomplices.

The alien now walks down a street, and she orders a cake and tries to eat it at a restaurant, gags after eating it, and leaves. She meets up with a man who follows her on a bus, takes her home and makes her feel at one. Her reaction to television or human touch is that of a newborn – trying to figure a lot of things out.

“Sex in the City”

Rather than luring the man into the void and making him a victim himself, she gets herself lured (the possibility could be that she wants to be more human and doesn’t like her job anymore) and they kiss for the first time and have a sexual encounter. She looks at herself for the one last time in the mirror after being bare naked. Technically, this moment in the movie isn’t sexual but is quite contextual, despite the fact that Scarlett Johansson is considered one of the sultriest working actresses today. The way she’s pulled of this scene deserves a standing ovation, for her eyes and her demeanor speaks more than herself.

They go to an abandoned castle and the sex follows, which ends abruptly when the man realizes he can’t and won’t be able to penetrate an alien (he doesn’t know she was an alien until this point in the movie), for she only has the skin of a human, that too of another one – possibly. Anatomically and biologically, it was an impossible feat.

Clearly, the interpretation of this scene is manifold, because even though the alien is aware of the existential aspect of herself and being within the skin of another species, she isn’t aware of how humans mate or reproduce and/or why they do it for pleasure. Or perhaps, she didn’t even know why she was doing what she was actually doing. The nature of her very existence is doubtful because of the garb she has donned which isn’t her real self. If this were a planned alien invasion, looked like it was heading towards its nemesis.

The end seems near.

“Into the Woods”

The alien meanders into the woods after her patchy experience with human fornication. Distraught and now a loner, she walks deeper into the forest when she meets a lumberjack who asks her to be careful. While she’s spending the night in a shack, the lumberjack follows her and tries to molest her. He then follows her as she runs and tries to get away from the world as she is.

Two things are easily notable at this point –

  • The biker is speeding all the way he wants to be, but it is unclear as to where he’s going. Perhaps to save the alien. Or even worse – he knows her end is near, so probably to retrieve her body and look elsewhere for “support”.
  • The alien barely speaks a word after her previous “mate”. Maybe the world is too emotional for her than she thought of how it would be. Or maybe, she’s in a state of extreme shock. More or less, the second hypothesis holds more water.

“Under the Skin” Meaning

Not about what’s under the skin, more importantly, who’s under the skin. Even the more – does it really matter? As she runs away from the logger while he follows, she’s also aware of the fact that she’s fighting a lone battle. The ultimate revelation has to be made someday or at some point in time. As the molester within the only human in the vicinity comes into being, the alien gives away. During her struggle, while he tries to rape her, some of the skin from her back is visibly torn. The logger who was lusting for her seemed astonished, shocked and runs away.

The alien peels off the human skin, including her face, and looks at her human self with her real eyes for the one last time. Perhaps, this is what she was trying to find within the mirrors. The real self. As the human eyes blink at her, the logger returns with a can of fuel and splashes it over her and then, sets her on fire.

The person who wanted her moments ago, albeit for malicious intent, now holds her guilty of her identity and doesn’t want her anymore. The alien’s existence has been denied by the very human beings whose skin she was wearing all over her body from a past few days. As her pitch black carcass burns up in fire and the smoke goes up, we could see the biker reaching over to a remote place and overlooking an immense snow-clad landmass. It isn’t clear whether if he was in the vicinity where his colleague was charred to death. For the first time in the entire movie, the alien becomes a victim, also for the very last time. Life completes the circle. Always.

The Ending

It came like a river – splashing and splurging, meandering and moving places, yet calm and composed and as if it were on a mission – a rather good one at that. Apparently, on her so-called “alien” planet, there’s a huge demand for the human organs or the gooey stuff that flows out of a slit after the victims are drowned in the pool of redemption. Perhaps, there was no other way for the alien to survive for more than a few days on this planet. Even after so many “uncertainty” adjectives, we’re clear on the fact that it was the emotional side of the humans which served as a deterrence to the invading species. Though more or less, this was a soft invasion, where the hunting and victimization happened only for “single” males and things were kept under the wraps, the weakness was within.

Despite being with a lot of loose ends, ‘Under the Skin’ is the epitome of abstract filmmaking, so much so, that the abstraction itself is abstract and questionable. From the “mirror” stuff to the victim’s pool to the icky stuff flowing out on a belt to the eye in the beginning, things have meanings which again have meanings. To put it simply, the revelations were deliberately given away or hidden in plain sight, and despite how simple or complicated any moment seemed like, there was always more to it.

There are a lot many open questions which will have perspectives depending upon who’s watching the movie. Where do they find such flawless skin, given that most of the victims were (and have been) males? Why don’t they harvest skin, as that too is an organ? What about the male skin? What are they going to do with it? Are all males turning up to be bikers eventually, in the alien-job-description? Where’s this void located? Is it a real place? Which fluid is there in the so-called pool?

‘Under the Skin’ won’t fall under the category of your everyday movie where the protagonist’s name is always revealed, there might be coherent, well-written dialogues and the timeline is linear. Not only the timeline is non-linear at many points, we don’t know who the alien is or was, while she spoke lesser than all the other characters combined. Still, we take away an experience with us, which we haven’t experienced so far, and which we won’t for some time to come.

Read More in Explainers: American Psycho | The Shutter Island | The Others

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