When most people talk about Under the Skin, they’ll reference it as that movie where Scarlett Johansson plays an alien and is naked a lot, but there’s so much more under the, er, skin of the film that’s worth exploring. Directed by Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast, Birth), Under the Skin is a creepy little sci-fi thinker that burrows itself underneath your skin and tests the way you perceive sexuality. Scarlett Johansson plays an alien who’s taken control of a human body in order to drive around in a van for hours on end, luring unsuspecting men into her vehicle and then taking them to an isolated house where one by one they disappear into some sort of black vortex of weird.
Why she’s taking the men is really of little relevance, though we suspect their insides are fueling some kind of larger entity we never get to see. But that’s not what the movie is about. Under the Skin is actually about sex and sensuality. It’s about why we have sex, who we want to have sex with, and what the repercussions are of fulfilling our own desires. While the first half follows Johansson around as she kidnaps horny dudes, the other half turns it around on this alien when she decides she doesn’t want to pretend anymore. When curiosity gets the best of her, and she wants to understand firsthand what it is these men crave so much.
The film takes its time getting to all these places, though, more content on setting its dark, cold, high-pitched mood than it is on hitting the necessary plot points, but it’s exciting to watch a beautiful actress like Scarlett Johansson play a character who needs to use her beauty as a weapon without ever understanding how powerful that weapon really is. When you add the fact that Johansson actually lured real men into this van who had no idea they were shooting a movie, it just tacks on another fascinating layer to the film’s deeper message that looks really can kill in more ways than one.
It’s ironic that most people will probably see this film simply because they heard Scarlett Johansson is naked in it, unaware that choice essentially makes them just another character in the movie. Like all these guys in the film — real men on the streets of Scotland, mind you — they’ll be making a choice based solely on their own selfish sexual desires, only to watch as the film slowly sucks them into this freakishly weird cinematic world where their perverted fantasies will eventually turn around and bite them in the most uncomfortable place: their brain.
Be careful what you wish for.
Note: This piece on Under the Skin was originally published during the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival.
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