Under the Skin is a movie that almost defies description. It is a story about some kind of extraterrestrial traveling through modern-day Scotland in the guise of a beautiful woman (played by Scarlett Johansson) who seduces random men, brings them back to her apartment/lair for some presumed sex, and then preys upon them in a way that honestly…I’m not sure what the hell happens to these guys. I just know they sure don’t survive the experience. And we don’t know much about the aliens prowling Scotland in search of victims, either, except there seems to be a few of them, some of them are extremely good at riding motorcycles, and the more they interact with humans, the more they imprint with us emotionally. As you might imagine, that last bit tends to get in the way of their mission of abducting and killing us.
This is a deeply weird, surreal, and creepy science fiction/horror movie that makes a lot of people wonder if it is one of the best things they’ve ever seen…or one of the worst. I am of the former camp, but I’ll admit that this is not a movie for everyone. It is challenging in the way that only an ambitious/pretentious arthouse movie can be, but there is a pretty awesome story here about our perceptions of beauty, sex, and love; how we connect with other people; and how we deal with the emotional desolation of true loneliness. There are also plenty of low-key scenes that simply creep you right the hell out, either because of weird alien stuff going on that you can’t really comprehend, or because the aliens themselves are casually doing things of unspeakable cruelty to their prey. There is a pair of scenes on a beach that make me shiver every time I think of them, simply because they are so simple, so effective, and so, so, so chilling. Let me put it this way: they will make you think twice before bringing your baby to the ocean ever again.
I think it’s particularly notable that Scarlett Johansson chose to do this movie. It came out in 2013, and in it, we see her fully nude more than once. Rarely does one of Hollywood’s most influential sex symbols go unclothed in a movie and it not make big news, but this time, it did because her nude scenes were, well, not what you’d expect. Nothing in this movie is what you’d expect, not even a straightforward proposition by Johansson asking you out of the blue if you think she is pretty, and if you would like to come home with her. On its face, that sounds like the fantasy of a whole lot of moviegoers. But keep in mind that just two years earlier, her mobile phone had been hacked, and nude photos of herself that she sent to her then-husband Ryan Reynolds were leaked to the public. The guy responsible got 10 years in jail for the hack, which I think was much deserved, considering he violated one of the most intimate details of Johansson’s marital privacy on a global scale.
I thought about that a lot while I watched Under the Skin. In many ways, this movie is meant to play on male fears of feminine sexuality. But I think with Johansson in it, the movie becomes so much more: a great, big moment of truth about sexual victimization. It almost feels like Johansson turned a moment of deep personal violation into a study on what happens when predators are made to think about those upon whom they prey. What they find will either leave them unmoved…or end their predator ways for good. Either way, it takes a lot of courage—both artistic and personal—to raise such a question to the audience in the way that it does. And courageous movies are worth seeing.