Sex Will Kill You

Decoding the meaning of Under the Skin

Director Jonathan Glazer and writer Walter Campbell’s Under the Skin joins the smallest movie subgenre: brilliant but batshit insane. Inarguably gorgeous and insatiably intriguing, if I were forced at gunpoint to explain the “point” of this one, I’d end up with a new orifice.

Guesses as to the major thesis: Sex is bad? Women are the gatekeepers of sex and lure men into destruction with their alluring “honey traps?” Men are nothing but vile, destructive perv-balls hellbent on perpetuating rape culture? Motorcycles are cool?

Unless someone told you going in, you wouldn’t have any idea for most of the film that Scarlett Johannson plays a nameless alien. The abstract but arresting opening sequence could be demonstrating almost anything but appears, in hindsight, to be the birth of a space baby. What is certain is that this alien’s job on earth has to do with making deadly sexytime. Specifically, she cruises around Scotland in a big van, picking up isolated dudes more than happy to be picked up by Scarlett Johannson. Then she kills them. Kind of…

Basically, in a completely black, endless room, she walks backwards in various states of undress while naked fellas with “downstairs parts” at “full attention” walk towards her before they disappear into a pool of black goo. This repeats until Lady McMurder-Alien meets a disfigured man who shows her true affection. This stirs something in her, leading her into the arms of a kind, slightly older lover who she does not black-goo murder. Unfortunately, she’s then sexually assaulted by a man in a forest who is dressed like a firefighter. Fin.

Here’s the thing: Under the Skin is good, maybe even great. I know it is. I just don’t know why. Certainly, it has something to do with the visual opulence and relentless tension, the latter aided in no small part by Mica Levi’s jarring score. In a sci-fi film with few sci-fi moments, it is Levi’s music that most strongly creates alien atmosphere. Johannson does most of her work with physicality, not just “come hither” looks and alluring jiggles but with smirks and burdened glances. The final shots are downright unforgettable, all but demanding the audience keep working through what they just saw.

And I am. I’m working quite hard, actually. At times it feels like the film can be seen as a commentary on the base nature of human desire, the depravity of lust. But that doesn’t quite feel right. Something about turning the alien from a conniving serial sex killer to a broken target of male domination to be pitied suggests…something else. Unlike recent abstract pieces like Upstream Color, Holy Motors, Beyond the Black Rainbow or Enter the Void, there’s no singular feeling to hold on to, no lasting identifiable aura. But it’s good; I know it is!
If a Supreme Court Justice can declare porn to be without definition but knowable on sight, so too can art fall into the same metric. I don’t know why Under the Skin is exceptional art. I just know it is.

Grade = A-

posted at 10:49 am
on Friday, April 25th, 2014


(We're testing Disqus commenting (finally!); please let us know if you have trouble.)

comments powered by Disqus


« Previous Page

We Was Smart Once

Modern Americans reelected a man who plunged the country into two wars, tortured people and destroyed our economy, all because George W. Bush was the kind of guy you’d “like to have a beer with.” But...

more »

Crank It Up

There are three perfect scenes in Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials. Not “good” scenes. Not “great” scenes. Three perfect scenes. Now, as a whole, The Scorch Trials is not a perfect movie. Nor is it a...

more »

Indonesia Amnesia

As soon as I finished The Act of Killing, director Joshua Oppenheimer’s stunning documentary about an Indonesian genocide, I had but one thought: Sequel! I mean, the franchise possibilities for a...

more »

The M Stands for Middling

For the first time in over a decade, director M. Night Shyamalan has made a film that won’t end up on many “worst of the year” lists come late-December…but will probably be forgotten by early next...

more »

Trial and Terror

You only hear about a psychological experiment if it goes really, really well or really, really bad. Guess how a simulation of prison using 20-something college students as both guards and inmates...

more »

Advanced Search