copyright 2016, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 57, summer 2016

Loving the alien: introduction to dossier on Under the Skin

By Lucas Hilderbrand

The five essays included in this dossier began as papers on two panels—one specifically focused on the film Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013, UK) and the other on the body politics of Scarlett Johansson in her recent films—presented at the 2015 Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference in Montreal. Under the Skin had generated considerable cinephilic attention and critical lauds[1] [open notes in new window] since its theatrical release almost exactly one year prior to the conference, in no small part because it is a “difficult” film. For the spectator, the film provokes such questions as, “What is going on?” and, by the film’s end, “What on earth have I just seen and heard?” The pleasures of the film (though some audiences surely found the film’s inexplicability to be maddening and displeasurable) are dual: the excitement of a largely new cinematic style and the attendant experience of disorientation.[2] These papers engage in the pleasures of attempting to puzzle the film out, through different lenses of analysis.

Although Under the Skin was adapted from a novel, the film rejects almost all of the familiar conventions of storytelling and instead offers a portrait of a woman (who turns out not to be human) whose actions are never explicitly explained. In place of narration in the traditional sense, the film offers striking visual compositions that give obscure clues as to the central character’s plot, accompanied by a largely unmelodic and abrasive score; in other scenes, shot like surveillance footage, the image is low-resolution and the dialogue borders on unintelligible and irrelevant.

Under the Skin begins with seemingly abstract images and sounds: the formation of a human eye and pronunciation practice, which the film uneasily synchronizes as disparate elements of humanity: ocular-centrism and speech. The film transitions to a mysterious man on a motorcycle, who then picks up an unconscious woman off the side of a road and puts her into the back of a white van. The film then cuts to an abstract white space as a woman (star Scarlett Johansson) strips the unconscious woman and puts on her clothes. This woman drives the same white van in the early morning fog, the sky still dark. She goes to a bustling mall, where she buys clothes and lipstick. She drives the van, seemingly in circles, throughout Glasgow, occasionally asking directions. The viewer up until this point is as lost as the protagonist, knowing less about her motivations and where she’s going than she does. The effect is often mesmerizing, putting the viewer on autopilot following her actions.

Finally, she gives a man a ride, and they make small talk. She takes him home, and she begins a striptease as he follows her inside an infinite black room. He is swallowed up into a viscous floor. Without a trace of emotion or reaction, the woman turns and picks up her clothes. Her lack of empathy is reinforced in a following sequence when she goes to the sea and watches a man who attempts to save a couple from drowning nearly drown himself; she hits him on the head with a rock after he washes ashore. It’s not a mercy killing, just a killing. Nor does she appear to notice that the frigid tide has soaked her boots and jeans. She leaves the drowned couple’s infant on the beach to cry and likely to die. She looks human but lacks any trace of human feeling—emotional, ethical, or sensate.

Searching for another man in her van, she gets swept up in a group of women into a discotheque. She seems to find the noise and lights unbearable and tries to escape but in the process finds the man she was stalking. He comes back to her place and again gets subsumed in the muck, but this time we follow him under the surface. He sees and touches a prior victim’s body, which then pops and is reduced to a flimsy flaccid balloon of skin. A chute of bloody viscera appears and then disappears into brilliant red abstraction. Although the woman’s actions and the film’s types of scenes recur enough to begin to seem familiar, they never quite make sense. The woman next picks up a man with neurofibromatosis. She does not seem to recognize his physical difference from prior men, yet, after taking him home in her seduction routine, she allows him to escape. The motorcycle man is deployed to find him.

The woman goes on the run, driving her van to a foggy village and then abandoning it. She attempts to eat a slice of cake but coughs it up. She takes a public bus, and a man volunteers his coat, as she is under-dressed for the weather. She goes home with him and is mesmerized by the television and by a space heater. After a date at a castle’s ruins, the man attempts intercourse. Alarmed and perplexed by this violation—she rushes to investigate her genitals with a table lamp—she runs away. In the woods, she is chased down by a logging trucker who assaults and attempts to rape her. In the struggle, a rip in her back’s skin reveals a patch of black; she peels off her skin like a latex body suit, revealing a non-human onyx figure underneath. The logging trucker returns, douses her with gasoline, and ignites her. She runs and collapses, burning alive in the snow. The motorcyclist looks for her as her ashes rise. Pan up, cut to black.

The essays in this dossier follow an arc that proceeds from close analysis in pursuit of “big” humanist questions to industrial history as a lens to understand contemporary filmmaking. In my opening contribution to this dossier, I grapple with the film’s troubling chromatic metaphors of blackness as the unknowable or non-human and of whiteness as human. As unstable yet pervasive visual tropes, these colors appear to present blatantly racialized meanings in an otherwise largely inscrutable film. As I suggest, although Under the Skin “has primarily been understood to pose an inquiry into what it means to be human from the speculative point of view of an alien,” the film’s visual metaphors demand that we “see ‘blackness’ at the core of any rigorous thinking-through of the human.”

Second, in her study of the film’s explorations of human sensation, Elena Gorfinkel looks to “eating” and “fucking” as the acts that define human experience in Under the Skin through the alien’s failure at both. Unable to ingest food or to be penetrated sexually, the alien can only know through external sensations of looking and touch—and the viewer comes closest to seeing as she does when she stares at her female form in the red glow of a space heater. Yet, ultimately unable to embody humanity, the alien dematerializes and “becomes weather.” Gorfinkel queries, “What vision of sex and what modes of corporeal intractability does the film present, and what terms of phenomenological engagement do these forms demand?” She looks to speculation and speculums in pursuit of answers.

Moving from carnal embodiment to sex and gender studies, Marc Francis situates Under the Skin both among the films in the recent Johansson “body trilogy”—Her (Spike Jones, 2013), Under the Skin, and Lucy (Luc Besson, 2014)—and divergences between feminist and queer theory. Francis suggests,

“Johansson’s body, on the one hand, queered through abstraction, and on the other, objectified and subjugated by misogyny, offers scholars and critics a place to exercise their political desires and concerns.”

Next, Amy Herzog’s take on the film focuses on the alien character’s actions as a form of labor without gratification or empathy, a rote repetition of procurement in which she is the bait that performs what might equally be understood as sex work or as stockyard management. Turning from the narrative to its meta-texts, Herzog shifts to reading the work of Johansson’s star image, from the popular internet meme of “ScarJo Falling Down” (which appropriated a paparazzi image taken during production) to her role as celebrity spokesperson. “ScarJo, a moniker that Johansson herself loathes, is a loose signifier, a NY Times crossword puzzle answer, a face, a function.”

Finally, in his essay, J.D. Connor argues that the film is a “a tragedy of consent” by analyzing its production practices, its funding through British and Scottish public monies, and the use of an American celebrity (Johansson) to play a British alien in Glasgow. Connor suggests that the film’s guerilla filmmaking tactics employing numerous state-of-the-art GoPro cameras “duplicates” the film’s human-hunting plot, “really trolling for real interactions that it can convert into a movie.” Connor further traces the restructuring of state support for filmmaking in the U.K., and the ways that Under the Skin’s prolonged development allowed it to bridge and capitalize upon various incentives and monies—thus epitomizing the broader logics of film financing in the U.K.

Under the Skin is a rich film for analysis, and we do not exhaust the interpretive possibilities for this decidedly curious film. Rather we hope to open it up to even more ways of thinking through it. (The film’s soundtrack, for instance, deserves more extensive attention than we give it here.) These essays also move away from how the film has been treated as an auteurist text, pure stylistic extravagance, or universalized allegory of humanity to consider its complex embodiments and abstractions of race, of sex, gender, and feeling, and of labor and the political economy of contemporary film production.


1. The film ranked 2nd on the Village Voice film critics poll and 5th on both the Sight and Sound and Film Comment polls for the best films of 2014. For results, see: http://www.villagevoice.com/filmpoll/cat/film/2014, http://www.bfi.org.uk/best-films-2014, http://www.filmcomment.com/blog/20-best-films-of-2014/ [return to text]

2. In attempting to make the film more recognizable, critics have compared it to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Andrei Tarkovksy’s Solaris (1972), Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), and Abbas Kiarostami’s 10 (2002). I would potentially add Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) to the list.