Apr 7 2014 3:30pm

Aliens Don’t Eat Chocolate Cake: Under the Skin and the Science Fiction Art Film

In my favorite scene in Jonathan Glazer’s new thriller/satire/science fiction film—Under the Skin—Scarlett Johansson’s unnamed protagonist (she had a name in the novel!) tries to eat a piece of chocolate cake in a crappy restaurant and nearly chokes. Every head in the place turns to look at her like she’s a crazy person, but in fact, she’s just an alien and can’t eat cake, or really anything. This, I’m guessing is the split on how most viewers will regard the relative quality of this movie: you’re either the “regular” people staring in disbelief, or you’re the alien wondering what the hell is wrong with everyone.

Like the Michael Faber novel of the same name, Under the Skin presents an alien in the guise of a woman, driving around Scotland on the hunt for men. According to numerous interviews with Glazer, some of the initial scenes in which ScarJo picks up on men in clubs and on the road were unscripted, and the men were just random guys in the real world. If the murderer-as-protagonist premise weren’t already unsettling, the “realness” of the various victims amps the film’s creep factor all the way up. The plot and production of the movie then, is also its thematic premise: Under the Skin is about flipping the male gaze, which it achieves in every single way. In the book, Isserley was looking for meatier human males as per her instructions, but here, any bloke will do. This works for a lot of reasons, the most surprising of which that it’s actually bizarre to be living the year 2014 and witnessing ScarJo on screen with a man who isn’t also a famous person. The mere act of having ScarJo “slumming it” is part of what convinces you of the movie’s strong moral fiber.

However, for a science fiction fan curious about the aims of the alien, or even their methodology, Under the Skin isn’t so much as confusing, but vague to the point of truly testing the audience’s ability to care about anything. The dialogue is so sparse, and none of the talking is expository in any way. In various scenes, we begin to infer that ScarJo has some partners in crime in the guise of dudes on motorcycles. These guys, it seems, are responsible for disposing of any evidence that ScarJo has been anywhere. This is confusing for a lot of reasons, the biggest of which that we’re not actually sure of the actual apparatus used by ScarJo/Isserley to kill/capture these men. Once she brings them “back to her place” we suddenly see her walking across a long black room, with the men following behind her. They then sink into black goop, while ScarJo walks away unscathed. Where is this black room? Is it in ScarJo’s creepy van? If so, and if her van is bigger on the inside, can we call it murder and relative dimension in van? Actually, I guess the room with the black goop isn’t in her van at all, because at one point we see her taking a guy into a weird little apartment before the regular murder scene takes place. I imagine an argument someone would make against me here is that the big room with the black goop isn’t a “real place” but more of a metaphor for how Isserley kills this guys, and that our human brains couldn’t comprehend it. But, since it’s a movie for humans, with lots of driving around and other logistics, my human brain needs a little help.

Similarly, in an early scene, we see an alive ScarJo undressing a dead ScarJo, who apparently was a real person before the alien assumed her identity. It’s a creepy scene and it does a good job establishing the non-sexualized, but rather, more matter-of-fact nature of Under the Skin’s nudity, which is essential and one of the strengths of the movie. (Plus, I’ve been feeling cheated out of a ScarJo versus ScarJo doppelganger scene since 2005’s clone-flick, The Island.) However, in like the very next scene, alien ScarJo buys brand new clothes, begging the question as to why she had to wear the dead girl’s clothes to begin with. I suppose she couldn’t have shopped naked, but isn’t that what the Terminator did when he initially showed up? To be sure, it would have been derivative to have ScarJo act like the Terminator and walk around naked freaking everyone out, and this isn’t that kind of movie, but still. She couldn’t just send the motorcycle guy to get her some new duds? Do the various metaphors about “shedding skin” and “peeling back layers” need to be this ham-handed?

Discussing whether or not Under the Skin was a good movie then, becomes a little tricky. People who don’t love sci-fi often say 2001 is the best science fiction movie ever made, while many of us groan because we suspect people love it not because of the sci-fi, but because of the arty “otherness.” Because Under the Skin was a film was made in an arty way (unscripted scenes) and because it carries strong social commentary (flipping of the male gaze) it feels a thinking person with progressive and feminist values (like me!) is required to say this movie is good. To put it another way: every time ScarJo lures someone into the black goop, murder violins play at frenetic screeches to let you know that something BAD is going down. And really, stuff like that not only makes for bad science fiction, but is also just kind of annoying.

So, though a fine meditation on our screwed up male-centric culture, Under the Skin left me without much to really think about other than the allegory and the artistic cinematic trick, making the movie feel like it was written and directed by someone who once made music videos, which, you know, it was. Is this a science fiction movie for people who don’t think they like science fiction movies? Yes, but it might have worked just as well if ScarJo hadn’t been an alien, and instead just a murderer.

Ryan Britt is a longtime contributor to and the creator of the Genre in the Mainstream column.

This article is part of Genre in the Mainstream: ‹ previous | index | next ›
1. Rutager
ScarJo? Is it really that hard to just type her name?
2. AlexKingstonIsMyAvatar
Is is just me or does this remind you of the 1st episode of Torchwood? Except the guys don't get orgasm before they die...
3. a1ay
Oh, yeah, that was the book that had an alien race that had mastered the science of interstellar travel, but not the art of, you know, farming.
4. DavidA
I'm with Rutager: Stop trying to make "ScarJo" happen.
Shelly wb
6. shellywb
From her latest interview:
On why she doesn’t like the nickname ScarJo: “I associate that name with, like, pop stars. It sounds tacky. It’s lazy and flippant. And there’s something kind of violent about it. There’s something insulting about it.”
Steve Taylor
7. teapot7
This is one of those books I loved so much I'm afraid of seeing the film - and it does sound as if it's heading off on another tangent to the book. I'm quite happy for a film to be about "flipping the male gaze" as you said earlier, but for me the book was all about loneliness and isolation, with a side order of "why I should stop being a hypocrite and become vegetarian", so I fear they haven't made a film of the book I read.

Also, another vote for no one ever saying "ScarJo" again. Ever.
8. Yass
I imagine this film won't make much sense to people whe have not read the book. Which I unfortunately have. Unfortunately, because having read the book, I knew that Scarlet is hunting for meat, which will get prosesed and canned for consumption on another planet. So I watched, desperately trying to forget the book ( which is very, very good and hard to forget) and see if I could understand what's going on that way...Not much is going on actually. As in nothing. I know. I know. It's an art film. But even art films need some sort of motivation for their characters. Maybe if the meat canning process was explained a bit more ( we are supposed to get it via some sort of red lava-like goop flowing down the drain into a singularity...) Maybe if the three UFO's were on the screen for ore then 2.3 milisecconds and attempted a landing or something. OK - I guess what I am driving towards is this- why does it need to be a sci-fi film. It would have been much better I think if Scarlet was just an ordinary sexless ( post-oop maybe) sociopath - killing for no particular reason which falls in love with the elephant man who explains humanity to her and ...right. Did I say that I simply like the book and find the movie - I mean the film - not so good.
9. Mr. Pete
This is a very weak review of a very strong film ~ don't let it put you off. It's demanding and impressionistic but nonetheless a brilliant 'translation' of Michel Faber's very fine book.
10. Mr. Pete
ps; I think I'm lucky to have seen the film first ~ it's very emotional and cinematic, though the book probably resonated with me as much or even more, it might be one of the most powerful films I've ever seen.
~interesting review of both here (with spoliers)
Stephen Perry
11. Dr. O No
I'm no master of the genre but I enjoyed watching the film. I have not read the book. Just a couple of comments ( spoilers )

The beach scene was pretty intense. Heroic human feeling ( attempted suicidal dog rescue (?) and all that followed is contrasted to Scarlett Johansson’s seeming indifference. ) The crying baby at day and then again in the opacity of a moonless night intensifies it to a cause of shaking dread. (TH) No special effects needed here. Scarlett is indeed an alien. (Radio bulletin maybe not needed?)

A very interesting array of male characters – Scarlett, being Alien, sharpens the focus onto the allured males. (shoulder and above shots - yes.) I thought their acting was superb. There is just no chance some of these guys would have been invited into 'her' van and then back to 'her' place in a billion light years – they should have twigged. Good acting.

The settings were unreal (wonderful wave eddys ) - I recognised Tantallon just from the roped staircase, having been there twice in the past.

I'm no master of the genre but I know I enjoyed watching the film start to finish. Powerful and atmospheric. Human nature and nature itself. The sci-fi fo me was a bonus.
12. Freign
I think the mistake that ruined the reviewer's enjoyment was approaching UtS with a lopsided gender politics lens on. It's usually a mistake, in my experience, to demand that symbolism exist in art, even where it does. The lens of gender politics here has redacted the content of the film drastically - it shouldn't be surprising that such a perspective left no room to find meaning. The reviewer is correct in being unable to find a narrative after removing any view other than the merely politically symbolic.

Uninstall those filters.
13. Rob Harrison
Admittedly this film doesn't give you much explanation of all the events and some people like to have every detail spelt out for them. But I think this reviewer has failed to grasp the idea that it is very much intended to be viewed from the Alien's perspective. Right from word go, you are seeing it all how the Alien would conceivably see things. This is why there is a lack of dialogue.

I take a dislike to the use of "ScarJo". But also can't stand to read a sentence such as "However, in like the very next scene" with "like" thrown in for no reason at all. If you are chatting to your friends it is just about bearable but not when writing, it's like really super annoying yeah.

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment