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Film / Under the Skin

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Under the Skin is a 2013 Sci-Fi Horror film directed and co-written by Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast), loosely adapted from Michel Faber's 2000 novel of the same name.

The film stars Scarlett Johansson as an alien who disguises herself as an attractive woman in order to prey on hitchhikers in Scotland.

Glazer worked on the film for over a decade; initially a dense, special effects-heavy concept, the final plot was considerably sparser. Most characters were played by non-actors, and many scenes were filmed with hidden cameras. The film is also very economical with its dialogue, instead choosing to let its visuals do the talking, which contributes to its eerie atmosphere.

Although it failed to make back its budget, the film received glowing reviews. Its abstract plot was subject to mass analysis, and it has since been deemed one of the best films of its decade.

Not to be confused with the PlayStation 2 game of the same name (known as Meiwaku Seijin: Panikku Mēkānote  in Japan).

This film provides examples of:

  • Adaptation Distillation: The film puts a more surreal and ambiguous spin on an already surreal source material. It explains practically nothing.
  • Alas, Poor Villain: The alien, due to some very bad timing.
  • Aliens in Cardiff: Aliens in Glasgow.
  • Aliens Speaking English: Justified - we can actually hear the alien learning to speak English during the first few minutes of the movie.
  • All There in the Manual: Several reviews of the film name Johannson's character as "Laura," presumably from a press pack. She is never named in the film, but is called Laura in the "Editing" featurette of the DVD Bonus Content.
  • And I Must Scream: The possible fate of the man at the nightclub is being trapped in suspended animation beneath the surface of the alien's void until another person releases him. Considering the alien dies in the end, he may very well be there forever.
  • Attempted Rape: Near the end of the movie, the main character is attacked by the logger who tried to molest her in her sleep.
  • Bald of Evil: The rapist.
  • Barbie Doll Anatomy: The main character has nipples but no visible vagina. Of course, it may just be hidden under her all-black skin. It's hinted that this is why she couldn't have sex with the helpful man, and her natural form lacks nipples - and possibly breasts, for that matter.
  • Become a Real Boy: After her encounter with the disfigured man, the alien starts attempting to act more human and do human things, like eating cake or having sex. Neither of them go well, and given that after this, she runs off into the woods to be alone, one can infer she's given up on becoming more human.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: The logger comes across as friendly and helpful at first, telling the alien about the forest trails. Later, however, he starts to feel her up in the cabin, before trying to rape her after her escape attempt.
  • Blue-and-Orange Morality:
    • Applying human moral standards to the aliens is impossible, since it is never entirely clear what the aliens are doing. It seems that they are using humans as food, but this is not shown in the movie. In the novel, the aliens are sending their prey back to their home planet where they are consumed as a delicacy called voddissin.
    • It seems to be implied that they use their victims' skins to disguise themselves as humans, to stealthily implant agents on the planet. The flesh may be used for food, though.
  • Body Horror:
    • The men the alien seduces. They get suspended in liquid long enough to puff up, then are popped, with their empty skins still floating around.
    • The decaying, bloated body of the swimmer that we see in the void.
  • Body Motifs: Skin, as one might infer from the title. It's the only thing left once the alien's victims are consumed and it's also how the alien's true form is revealed, after her false skin is torn open.
  • Book Ends: The film begins and ends with the image of a dead woman: a mystery girl, implied to be our protagonist's predecessor, at first, and later, the protagonist herself, hinting that she herself will be replaced, just like the first girl was.
  • Dark Is Evil: Everything about the aliens: the black room and its human processing oily liquid, and their actual physical appearance, being black-skinned humanoids with yellow eyes. When they're not associated with black, they're associated with red, with their dimly red lights. However, this is somewhat subverted, since the protagonist eventually develops a conscience, and only reveals her real form near the end, when she's embraced her humanity.
  • Death of a Child: Implied. The baby left on the beach after its parents drown is ignored by the motorcyclist, and a later radio report indicates it is missing. Its eventual fate is not shown, but it doesn't look good for the poor kid.
  • Distracted by the Sexy: Seeing Johansson's character in her underwear seems to prevent her victims from noticing (or caring) that they are in the Eldritch Location described below.
  • Downer Ending: The alien, in the midst of becoming more human, is murdered by an attempted rapist.
  • Emotionless Girl: As per the trope's description, she "mimics social conventions by heavy-handedly triggering the desired emotions and behavior in others." She can turn on the charm and sex appeal when she's luring another victim into her van, but otherwise is blank-faced and aloof.
  • Eldritch Location: The alien's "apartment" that sucks the men she picks up through the floor, and puts them through the aforementioned body horror.
  • Fan Disservice:
    • The much-anticipated scenes in which the alien is fully naked can (rather surprisingly) come across this way, as there is nothing remotely erotic about the way they are shot. The alien is far more interested in the way her body's anatomy works, giving her examining herself in a full-length mirror a somewhat clinical feeling. Of course, some people will find them sexy anyway, simply because it's Scarlett Johansson.
    • "Scarlett Johannson undressing another woman" loses a lot of its appeal when the other woman is dead or comatose.
  • Freeze-Frame Bonus: In one early scene the alien is driving around Glasgow, and we see from left to right: a shop selling leather, a poster saying SPACE INVADER, an advertisement with the slogan "You. Me. Something Else," and a poster for a performance of Beauty and the Beast. Just after the bus with an advert on the back saying "It's possible."
  • Gasoline Dousing: At the end of the film, the would-be rapist kills the alien by dousing her with gasoline and burning her alive.
  • Genre Mashup: Is it a sci-fi horror film? An art film? Both?
  • Gross-Up Close-Up: A variation; many of the behaviors or details that get extreme close-ups are actually ordinary parts of everyday life that most people don't bother to think about, but become unsettling because of the close attention paid to them.
  • The Grotesque: One of the protagonist's intended victims (the actor really does look like that, but lives a happier life than this character).
  • Heel–Face Door-Slam: The alien tries to reform herself and act more human after seducing the disfigured man, but neither of her attempts go well at all - and she ends up dying a lonely death at the hands of the logger - who gets away scott-free. It's implied that she'll end up being replaced with another alien on Earth.
  • Homage: To 2001: A Space Odyssey. The soundtrack clearly goes the same brand of eeriness and the beginning of the film references a lot of the imagery with the assembly of the alien's eye being similar to the alignment of Jupiter's moons in the film and the head on shot of the motorcyclist as he speeds through a tunnel with light going past him is very blatantly a reference to the "beyond the infinite" sequence.
  • Honey Trap: The alien takes the form of a highly attractive women, who uses her looks to lure men into a strange location where they're killed (apparently to eat).
  • Human Aliens: Played straight until the Gainax Ending.
  • Humanoid Aliens: Her true form has the basic human body type, but with all-black skin and yellow eyes.
  • I Do Not Drink Wine: The alien tries to eat chocolate cake but spits it out immediately.
  • Ironic Echo: Throughout the movie, when the alien seduces men and captures them, an eerie soundtrack is heard. When the forest guard attempts to rape her and then kills her, a distorted version of the same theme is used, as if to indicate that the tables have been turned on her.
  • Karma Houdini: The rapist. Especially when you consider that his behavior isn't that of someone attacking his first victim.
  • Kill It with Fire: At the end of the movie, in the woods the man in the yellow jacket douses the main character with gasoline and sets her on fire, after his attempted rape of her tears off the fake human disguise she has been wearing all this time.
  • Leave the Camera Running: Several shots go on for a long time, such as the alien looking at her face in a mirror after seducing the disfigured man.
  • Legacy Character:
    • An unusually subtle example. The dead woman that the alien gets her clothes from at the beginning is implied to be the protagonist's predecessor, hinting that after the alien's death, someone will come to replace her, too.
    • One reviewer gave an even more depressing interpretation - the woman at the start is Isserley, the more humane protagonist of the novel, who has now been discarded by the motorcyclist.
  • Male Frontal Nudity: The alien's victims gradually disrobe as they venture further into her void. One of them we see at length is very well equipped.
  • Mind Screw: Just what exactly is going on in the film isn't clear at the best of times.
  • Missing Child: The beach scene. A baby is left orphaned on a beach after its parents both drown, and everyone ignores it as it's screaming and crying. When one of the aliens returns later that night, it's still screaming as the tide gets worryingly close. A news report the next day mentions that the child is still missing.
  • Motorcycle on the Coast Road: There are several long shots of the alien's male partner zooming through the Scottish countryside on his motorcycle. Road racer Jeremy McWilliams was another non-actor cast in the role because he was able to do this in bad weather.
  • Ms. Fanservice: Though much of the nudity is decidedly unsexy, many in the audience may still be attracted to the sight of the alien getting naked. It helps that she's played by the very good-looking Scarlett Johansson. The film is in fact very often known as "the one in which Scarlett Johansson gets naked", particularly her full-frontal scene.
  • Mundane Made Awesome: The celebration of eating cake. Well, until the vomiting anyway. Justified as the alien has just started her wondrous exploration into humanity.
  • Nameless Narrative: Most of the characters are not named and get listed in the credits by their description like "The Female" or "The Bad Man". Exceptions are:
    • The family on the beach, who are named the McClellands, although you have to pay attention to a radio broadcast in the film to catch it.
    • The first victim, Hibs fan Andy, has his own name tattooed on his arm.
    • The character the alien meets at the club is named Andrew.
    • In the novel, the character corresponding to Scarlet Johansson is named Isserley.
  • Pet the Dog: The alien seems to have a change of heart after seducing the disfigured man and lets him go. Unfortunately for him, the motorcyclist still ends up catching and very likely killing him.
  • Predatory Prostitute: The alien preys on men who fall for her seduction.
  • Questionable Consent:
    • The man who takes the alien in after he finds her on the bus has sex with her, and he thinks she is a traumatized/mentally disabled human woman, which would make it debatable whether she could give informed consent. While she seems fine with this, it also doesn't look like she knows what sex even is exactly, pushing him off her after he apparently ejaculates to examine herself. Thus it seems doubtful that she actually knew what was going on. So from either of their perspectives it's problematic.
    • Another interpretation of the scene is that the man is trying to find her vagina, and she is shocked to realize that she doesn't have one. With her comments about loneliness to the deformed man, the situation seems like another failed attempt at experiencing something human like with the cake scene.
  • Raging Stiffie: All of the alien's victims get erect penises. Well, they were believing that they would get some "fun time" with the alien (who's played by Scarlett Johansson, mind you), so it's understandable. Given that the film is rated 15 in the UK, how it was possible for the filmmakers to be allowed to show them is a mystery.
  • Redemption Quest: The alien embarks on this after she seduces the man with the deformed face.
  • Replicant Snatching: Early on, we see the alien's trap suck out the innards of a victim, leaving only the skin. Later on in the movie, we see the alien's "human" skin peel off, revealing a distinctly nonhuman body underneath. Put two and two together, and...
  • Scenery Porn: Lots of scenes of beautiful Scottish highways and woods.
  • Sensory Abuse: The soundtrack isn't painful exactly, but the harsh noises are played up, and what little dialogue there is tends to be so quiet as to be virtually inaudible, especially if lots of people are talking at once, emphasizing her lack of connection with humans.
  • Silence Is Golden: There is dialogue in the film, but it's definitely not the main focus.
  • Snow Means Death: The last scene shows snowflakes falling after the alien's death.
  • Surreal Horror: The oppressive atmosphere and constant Mind Screw make it an unsettling film. Few aspects stand out as horrifying on their own, but there is a David Lynch feeling of dream-like terror to it.
  • Too Dumb to Live: In a sadly realistic variant, two parents both drown after they go out into the ocean, fully clothed, one to save a family dog in distress and the other to save the first parent, leaving their young baby alone and defenseless on shore. The father was even insistent enough to try swimming out again after the hiker had saved him already.
  • To Serve Man: In the novel, the victims' meat is delivered to a farm to be processed and sent to the home planet for the rich to eat as a delicacy. The movie adaptation makes it far more ambiguous, but we do see a red paste sliding down a chute after the victims are killed, reminiscent of processed meat.
  • Unequal Pairing: Played with. The man the alien comes to trust and then has sex with is simply a normal man, so is obviously far less dangerous than she is. However, he thinks she is a traumatized / mentally disabled human woman, so he presumably thinks that he's the more powerful one.
  • The Unintelligible: Many of the cast speak with such thick brogues that even the alien has trouble understanding them (as will many people watching if they're not familiar with the accent).
  • Villainous BSoD: When the alien sees herself in the mirror, presumably for the first time, after she consumed her third victim.
  • Villain Protagonist: Most of the film is seen from the point of view of a female alien who is seducing men in Scotland. Apart from what happens to the men, she allows a couple to drown and then leaves the couple's baby alone on a desolate beach. It's not clear if she even knows what this means, though.
  • White Void Room: Where the alien takes the dead girl, implied to be her predecessor, and dresses herself in the other's clothes.
  • Women Are Delicate: The bus stop man carries the alien across the water.