Blog Directory CineVerse: I've got you under my skin

I've got you under my skin

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Sci-fi-flavored horror is a hybrid subgenre represented by several excellent works, including Alien, John Carpenter’s The Thing, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and David Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly. A worthy addition to that list of exemplary films is Under the Skin, directed by Jonathan Glazer and starring Scarlett Johansson. The CineVerse faithful carefully evaluated this picture last week and arrived at the following observations (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here):

What got under your skin about “Under the Skin,” good or bad?

  • It casts Johansson, renowned as a voluptuous and alluring actress, but downplays her nude scenes as quite matter-of-fact and non-titillating.
  • The narrative is decidedly enigmatic and opaque, refusing to provide context, backstory, or explanation about why these aliens are here, the relationship between Laura and her motorcycle handlers, or exactly why she deviates from her presumably assigned course of predatory behavior.
    • Note that, in the novel upon which this screenplay is based, the female alien’s mission is to entrap men who will be served up as a culinary delicacy on her home planet.
  • This movie abandons all the trappings of a traditional science fiction film, which you would expect to showcase snazzy special effects, spacecraft, interstellar travel, and futuristic technology.
  • The opening sequence, which reminds the viewer somewhat of 2001: A Space Odyssey in its style and strange visual approach, is distinctively offbeat: Are we witnessing the birth of Laura as an automaton-like creature who is being programmed? Is the circular object an eyeball or a distant planet/star?
  • The filmmakers adopt a guerrilla-style neorealism approach by filming, with hidden cameras, non-actors being propositioned and invited into the van by a disguised Johansson. This technique creates realistic, natural, and spontaneous engagements between the actress and these unsuspecting passersby.
  • It’s rare to see a non-X-rated film featuring full-frontal male nudity, including erections.

Major themes

  • The hunted becomes the hunter, and vice versa. This is a reversal of the expected paradigm in which men are the predators and women are the prey. In many ways, this film could open male eyes about what it feels like to be a victim of sexually predatory behavior.
    • The Mary Sue writer Kristi Puchko wrote that Under the Skin “creates a reverse of contemporary rape culture where violence against women is so common that women are casually warned to be ever alert for those who might harm them… By and large men don’t worry about their safety in the same way when walking home late at night. But in the world of Under the Skin, they absolutely should.”
    • Film essayist Sarah Mirk wrote: “As an alien, Johansson was fearless. As a woman, she realizes that while her body is certainly powerful, she is vulnerable in this strange world.”
  • The extent to which women are seen and considered as sex objects by men. Interestingly, by the film’s conclusion, the tables have turned and a more empathetic Laura is pursued by a man bent on sexual violence.
    • Slant magazine writer Ed Gonzales wrote that Laura is “aware of her appeal to men, views sexual fulfillment as an abstraction, and when she allows herself to be penetrated by a comforting stranger, her reaction sends her spiraling into an oblivion not unlike that into which she drops her victims. She’s still not of this Earth, but now her alienness is a marker of her naïveté, of a very recognizable sense of estrangement. And in a haunting sojourn through a woodsy gulf between fantasy and reality that’s as bracing as the story’s ellipses, the existentially uprooted Laura seems to understand herself in the way she does her victims, as commodity, and recoils from the horror of her sentience manifesting itself from sexual initiation and, subsequently, degradation. And that, the film articulates through its abstract movie-ness, is no way for a girl to come to understand her body, regardless of what’s under her skin.”
  • The universality of the human condition. The alien Laura appears dispassionate, cold, and uncaring about the fates of her male victims until she starts to develop empathy after putting herself in the shoes of a disfigured man she releases and following her discovery that she possesses female genitalia and a body that brings pleasure and excitement. Despite her extraterrestrial status, we see how she becomes curious about what it’s like to be human – wanting to eat cake and engage in lovemaking. And we also witness how, even though she is “under the skin” an extraterrestrial, like human beings she can feel empathy, confusion, loneliness, fear, pain, and lack of dignity.
  • The unavoidable power of the death drive. According to Wikipedia, “In classical Freudian psychoanalytic theory, the death drive is the drive toward death and destruction, often expressed through behaviors such as aggression, repetition compulsion, and self-destructiveness.”

Similar works

  • The Man Who Fell to Earth
  • Starman
  • Species
  • My Stepmother is an Alien
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey
  • 10
  • Red Road
  • Monster
  • Her
  • The Elephant Man
  • Ex Machina

Other films directed by Jonathan Glazer

  • Sexy Beast
  • Birth
  • The Fall

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