Genre Grandeur – Under The Skin (2014) Second review

For the next review for this month’s Genre Grandeur – Aliens, I have for you another review of the movie Under The Skin, this one written by Niall from Ragingfluff.  Check out his site for some excellent reviews and commentary on lots of great movies.

Wow! This seems to be a very popular title, maybe I’ll have to check it out myself one of these days.

It’s still not too late to send me your reviews for this months genre.  Just send me your Alien movie review to before Friday and I’ll post it!


Here’s Niall’s take on Under the Skin (2014)



Under the Skin

Niall McArdle





I was thirteen when I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time. I had heard a lot about it; I knew it was considered important. I watched it with my father, a man who generally liked horse operas and old-fashioned war movies. He liked films were things happened and there was a decent amount of fisticuffs. Long, slow, quasi-intellectual stuff didn’t appeal. Amazingly, he didn’t fall asleep during 2001: A Space Odyssey (bear in mind this was a man known to fall asleep when we had company over, as a not so gentle hint that it was time for the guests to leave). He did, however, complain loudly that the film was drivel, and when astronaut Dave Bowman is unplugging HAL’s memory banks, and HAL says “Stop, Dave, stop”, my father yelled at the TV “Yes, for God’s sake, Dave, please stop!”


I don’t think my dad would have liked Under the Skin very much.




Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin is a film that will divide audiences. You may regard it as one of the most important pieces of cinematic art to come along in some time; a brilliant, challenging, queasy piece of science-fiction aimed at grown-ups who like to think; a meditation on loneliness; “a profound statement on what it means to be human,” as one critic fell over himself to describe it … or you may simply think it is pretentious tosh; a cheap-looking, amateurish bit of studenty shite. You also may only want to watch it to see Scarlett Johansson naked, in which case skip ahead to 1:17:00.


In truth I think it’s both amazing and terrible. I have watched it several times, and am in awe at parts of it, and also bored senseless by some of it. It has a central performance by Scarlett Johansson that has to easily be the best thing she has ever done, even if it looks at times like she’s doing nothing. You can see her growing into the character, just as the alien grows into the human form it has adopted. Note to actors who think shouting and quivering equates to great acting: sometimes sitting still and not saying a word can be just as effective at holding the screen. Watch how Johansson’s expression remains resolutely blank even in the face of events that would buckle anyone with a heart.




For that is the point, is it not? Johansson is an alien without empathy, the very thing that defines us as human. Hence her lack of reaction on the beach as she witnesses a drowning, blithely ignoring a screaming toddler at her feet. Late in the film Johansson stands looking at her naked reflection, examining the skin that she is in, her expression bewildered. Is this what it is to be mortal, to be human? She is slowly learning what it is to be one of us.


Why she has been sent to earth is not clear, and why her overlords have decided that the mean streets of Glasgow should be her stomping ground is similarly unexplained. She wears a short black wig and faux-fur jacket, is glamorously made-up, and speaks in a clipped, posh English accent.




This being Glasgow, you might have difficulty understanding everybody else. It doesn`t really matter anyway: what is being spoken is of little consequence. Glazer has made a strikingly visual film without much dialogue; most of it is filled with long passages of silence, and the only sound is a very creepy, unsettling score. The sound design in this film is incredible.


The alien has a minder of sorts, a grim-looking guy on a motorbike. He procures for the alien to occupy the body of a young female; he also is her clean-up crew, disposing the evidence of her activities (she seduces men and drowns them, sort of), and later becomes her nemesis when she aborts her mission, zooming around the Scottish highlands searching for her. At least, I think he’s searching for her: Glazer provides few answers in this film. He has made the perfect a la carte movie: you can take away whatever you want from it.




I said that she sort of drowns the men she picks up. There is a pool of black, very syrupy looking oil, which she is capable of walking on. The men undress and step deeper and deeper into it, never taking their eyes off her, before sinking out of sight. Of course, there is a (bad) horror movie tradition of beautiful women seducing and killing men, but this is worlds away. She is a siren who lures men to their … what, exactly? They continue living for a while in a weird, embryonic state beneath the surface, before their skin shrivels like an old balloon. Has she absorbed their essence? Their souls? At one point it seems like whatever is left of her victims is sluiced away to a distant red light (a different dimension, perhaps?)


Driving a white transit van around the city, she stops several passersby to ask directions (Glazer used a hidden camera for several scenes, so we see slovenly, blotchy, pale, wizened, ancient Glaswegians nattering to her.) Did any of these people realise they were talking to one of the world’s most glamorous women, a certified movie star, a goddess from Olympus come down to earth to mix with mortals? That little bit of cinema-verite is very clever, for are not modern-day celebrities as removed from the rest of us as an alien would be? More than one critic has drawn a comparison to Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth, in which an extra-terrestrial is played by otherworldly David Bowie.




It is significant that the men she seeks are single. Married men – happy men – she leaves be. Her targets are the lonely, the forlorn. Okay, you might want to yell at the screen after a while, we get it: loneliness is bad for you. But then she has two encounters that change everything.




The first is with a man suffering from neurofibromatosis. In a world as cruel and shallow as ours can be, and with ridiculous notions of what is beautiful, who is more isolated than the disfigured? This man does his grocery shopping at night so people don’t have to see him (or perhaps the other way around). The alien asks if he would like to touch her. His responses are mumbled. There is a simple but starling image of the two of them sitting side by side in her van, a man as facially disfigured as John Merrick and a woman who regularly tops polls of Sexiest Woman Alive, his hand lightly touching her skin, that probably says more about where we are as a superficial, beauty-worshipping culture than 100 articles on Upworthy. He too ends up naked and floating in the oil, but as she is about to leave, she stares at herself in the mirror, and a dawning humanity emerges on her face. She takes pity on the man, and helps him escape.




The second encounter is with a man who takes her in, clothes her and feeds her. They attempt to have sex: it doesn’t end well, of course, because while the skin she’s in is female, underneath is, well, something else. The scene ends with a startled Johansson examining her crotch with a torch, before fleeing.


The film ends with a harsh lesson about human cruelty. A man attempts to rape her, and as he rips off her clothes, he rips off bits of her skin, revealing the jet-black alien figure underneath. The alien removes the human skin, Johansson’s face now a simple mask. The man doesn’t take any chances: he sets fire to the alien, killing it.




Under the Skin is about, I think, what it means to be under the skin that we are in. Are we merely animals or are we something else that has fallen into flesh? Is our need for love – and physical contact – the one thing that makes us human, and is it a blessing or a curse? And what of the misbegotten unfortunates who are denied love? And those cruel, unfeeling types incapable of giving it? I could be wrong. The film might be about nothing other than its very existence. And that would be okay: art that exists for its own sake – or that states simply “I was here” – is a human right, surely.








Thanks again to Niall for his participation!

17 thoughts on “Genre Grandeur – Under The Skin (2014) Second review

  1. Haven’t seen it yet Niall, but all the reviews have left me really wanting to. (I actually love 2001 by the way, and The Man Who Fell To Earth) Yours is no exception, and despite your mixed feelings, I will almost certainly be buying the DVD.
    Cheers, Pete.


  2. Fantastic piece Niall, I very much agree and am intrigued by your perspective here, too. I was I think a little more prone to just loving this outright because I really enjoy anything Johansson is in. However, there were moments here and there that did border on boredom for me as well. There were a few times I wished the story could have moved forward a bit quicker so as to keep the pace going. I’m sure there are probably quite a few more weaknesses I could pick out, but given that I’ve only seen it the one time (so far), my impressions of it were pretty darn good. As you know, already. 🙂

    Must give it another look though, soon. If you have these kinds of mixed feelings after several viewings there’s a good chance I might as well.


    • i think it’s one of those films destined to be a classic with a devoted cult following (like “Enemy”, the other odd, creepy film from this year), and it won’t be long before there’ll be undergraduate essays on its meaning 🙂 i have not read the novel, but i have read several reviews on the film that insist it has missed the point of the book.


  3. Ahhh Niall if there are spoilers I had better stay away…I have heard extremes about this–either people loved it or they thought it was super weird. Lol. I hesitate because of the latter, but I still might check it out…so I’ll come back to your review. 🙂


  4. I really admire what under the skin did and everything, I really like a lot of it, but I didn’t really have much of a connection with it (apart from that awful baby scene). I do tend to appreciate it more than I did during my viewing. Without being stuck in the middle of struggling to maintain attentiveness, I can better respect the themes and arc that Johansson’s character takes, leading to her tragic conclusion in the stunning final scene. I’d give it a solid B- though.


    • interesting point about the sense of connection or lack thereof that a viewer might have. no pun intended, but it can be an alienating film. i’ve watched it again since writing the review, and still find it a fascinating film that i think will be seen as a classic in years to come. a lot of people hated 2001 when it was first released.


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  6. Interesting that it was compassion for the deformed man, not the screaming toddler that finally got to her. Was the film trying to express that while the alien had no maternal instincts she did feel empathy for a man who looked as if he were wearing a mask? Or was it the cumulative effective of her cruel job that wore her down until the deformed man was the “straw that broke the camel’s back.” In any event, it’s a good film worth seeing at least once. I don’t think anyone would want to see it twice.


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