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Under the Skin DVD cover

Although you can broadly define Under the Skin as science fiction, it's difficult to classify in a straightforward manner. Describing it as a film featuring aliens on Earth hiding amongst humans may make you think of a sci-fi mystery, which would give you utterly the wrong idea. Likewise, an attention-baiting quick sell of the film, "Scarlett Johansson as an alien seductress," is technically accurate but deliberately misleading, and could easily be utilized to conjure up images of trashy softcore pornography. While the film is quite sensual in places, it is considerably deeper than that and is driven by substantially more than just cheap titillation. The most concise way to sum up the film is unfortunately also the most obtuse: think of it as an existential character study.

Although nominally adapted from Michael Faber's debut novel of the same name, budgetary constraints meant the narrative was stripped to its bare minimum, with only a few scenes directly relating to its events. Instead, the story has been transformed into a journey of personal discovery as the protagonist (unnamed in the film but listed as Laura in the credits) attempts to assimilate into the human life she begins as being baffled by. She initially possesses, if not a lack of emotion, then simply nothing that a human being would recognize as such. Her internal thoughts are as inscrutable as Geiger's xenomorph or Kubrick's Star-Child, and she reacts with the same detached indifference to anything she sees, be it a TV show of comically inept stage magician Tommy Cooper or a child left abandoned when its parents drown in the North Sea. All she understands of humanity is how to ensnare men, while for any sights and sounds outwith this narrow spectrum she has no frame of reference to even guess at what they signify.

Much of the first part of the film consists of Laura driving around a city and picking up lonely men, taking them back to a derelict house where they are imprisoned. The thick Glaswegian accents might be difficult for some viewers to completely understand, but once the context of the conversations are understood the actual words being said become largely irrelevant. Using improvised dialogue and featuring unknown actors, non-professionals, and obliviously coerced passers-by, the mundane simplicity of her seduction is made apparent. It's a simple fact that in both fiction and real life, most heterosexual men would not think twice about accepting a lift from a beautiful and friendly lone woman, the possible dangers associated with doing so never even crossing their minds, even after only talking to her for less than a minute. Indeed, they may even presume that her favorable reaction to them means that the situation will begin to escalate in their carnal favor. "This kind of thing doesn't happen in real life," they were likely telling themselves. They were right.

The sequence of entrapments within the house have a surreal, dreamlike quality to them, the naked men's movements seemingly unconscious and without thought, as though they are under some form of hypnosis, or comparable to cattle being led obliviously to the slaughter and the meat of their bodies harvested for some unspecified purpose. The novel's concept of humans being factory farmed for the alien delicacy of their flesh is a perfectly passable explanation, but as it is surplus to requirements for the purposes of the story, it remains unelaborated upon.

The disjointed flashes of urban life (mostly in the bustling center of Glasgow, Scotland's largest city) indicate Laura's inability to compartmentalize what she's seeing. To her, humanity is a mess of associations that do not seem to fit together in any conceivable way, and so she wanders amongst groups of people in silent bemusement, part of a crowd but forever separate from it. Although open and flirty when interacting with people, her face switches to a complete blank when she is alone, undertaking her duties without truly comprehending what she's bearing witness to.

So Laura might have continued were it not for a chance encounter that ends up sowing the seeds of an identity crisis. After enticing a man afflicted with neurofibromatosis and the associated tumors that heavily disfigure his face, hearing him talk of how people react to him based on nothing but the way he looks makes her question who she is herself. As the features Laura wears are not her own, but copied from the abandoned corpse of a (presumably murdered) young woman, she becomes unsure of her true identity, wordlessly asking herself, if humans are defined by how they look, then in taking a human face and emulating their behavior, is this now who she is? And if so, should she not try to experience what it means to be human?

Routinely declared to be one of the world's most desirable woman, Scarlett Johansson's beauty is at once significant to the character but also a tertiary component of it. Like much of her speech and movement, Laura's presented appearance is deliberately artificial, a mere imitation of human femininity deconstructed into component parts and mimicked without true comprehension of what it actually constitutes. Her face and body are nothing but tools used to attract her prey, no more self-consciously displayed than the vibrant leaves of a carnivorous plant enticing doomed insects into its deadly snare.

Music in a film is primarily used to augment the emotion of the film's characters, but as Laura has none, the score instead for the most part incorporates an atonal electronic buzzing to simulate the detached void of Laura's feelings. Similarly, a film's score can also be used to manipulate an audience's emotions, but here we are deliberately kept from empathizing with Laura. As the entire film is shot from her perspective, we are on the same journey she is, sharing in her incomprehension of what exactly she is perceiving and equally unsure of how we are supposed to react to it. It's more than a little frustrating, and an almost counterintuitive way of making a film, but it's ultimately far more satisfying.

Principally a commercial and music video director, Jonathan Glazer has made only three feature films in the space of a little under fifteen years, mainly due to Under the Skin taking almost a decade to come together. However, even in such a small body of work he has developed some distinct stylistic turns. Echoes of his previous movies Birth (2004) and Sexy Beast (2000) resonate in Under the Skin's pointed silences, the lack of talking far more eloquently expressing a character's inner turmoil than any amount of loquacious introspection ever could. It would be wrong to describe Under the Skin as an entertaining film, as it was simply not made with such a purpose. It asks questions about human identity and the significance of our outward appearances in establishing both it and the immediate assumptions others make about us, but does not presume to answer them. Instead, it remains thought-provoking for those spurred to consider the implications of how we perceive one another on account of assumptions both figuratively and literally as deep as our skin.

Andrew Marshall also reviews for Movie Muser and Starburst, and was previously a writer and assistant editor for Subtitled Online. His fiction has been published in Estronomicon, Thirteen, Alien Skin, and The Firm, and he is currently writing fictional biographies for the stage personas of operatic metal band Calatrilloz while working on a ten-volume series of urban fantasy novels. He also has a sporadically updated blog.

Andrew Marshall also reviews for Movie Muser and Starburst, and was previously a writer and assistant editor for Subtitled Online. His fiction has been published in Estronomicon, Thirteen, Alien Skin, and The Firm, and he is currently writing fictional biographies for the stage personas of operatic metal band Calatrilloz while working on a ten-volume series of urban fantasy novels. He also has a sporadically updated blog.
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