Under the Skin

Under the Skin is a science fiction film directed by Jonathan Glazer and released in 2013. It tells the story of an alien disguised as a human woman (played by Scarlett Johansson) who drives around Scotland in a van and uses her sexuality to persuade them to come back to her house. She is presented as a predator who stalks and preys on men. She leads the men back to her ‘house’ where the men are transported to another dimension and killed for meat. The woman is shown to be alienated from other humans and has to practice human interaction so she can blend in. The film explores what it means to be human and a woman and towards the end of the film she begins to change her behaviour and she frees her last victim because she starts to feel empathy and other human emotions which make her less alienated from society. The genre of Under the Skin is horror science fiction it is a film that leaves the audience to interpret what the symbolism within the film means to them. In the film, Johansson’s character does not have a name she is called ‘the woman’. At the start of the film we see the woman taking clothes, underwear and shoes off a dead woman but the woman is shown to have a natural human body so the audience are unaware of what is under the skin. So from the start of the film there is a sinister and mysterious feeling where see seems an unusual character but we do not suspect she is an alien disguised as a human. The only sense of alien in the film that the audience can clearly see is the alienation she has from the alien world as she always seems distant and is clearly struggling to understand the human language.

At 25 minutes into the film, the Woman is talking to her next victim who is swimming at the beach but their interaction is interrupted by another man running into the sea to save a family who have gone into the sea to rescue their dog. The wife, husband and dog are washed away leaving their baby alone. The Woman has no expression on her face as she stands there staring at the chaos. The camera only shows one side of her face and as the background is so dark and blurred it makes the audience focus on the Woman and her eerily pale and nearly translucent skin. When the swimmer is collapsed on the side and exhausted that is when she activates her predator mode and begins to walk towards him when he is in his most vulnerable position. Throughout the film predator vs prey is a commonly shown as the Woman has the power and dominance over her victims. Although at this point the audience are unaware that the Woman is not human but there are things she does that question her normality. For example when she walks towards her victim she walks through the sea instead of avoiding it meaning her shoes and trousers become soaked and she does not even notice this as she is so focused on her mission. Furthermore as she walks towards the victim the music becomes extremely creepy and it creates even more tension as we know what the swimmers future is. The music heightens the emotional impact of the film as the audience know what will happen so this highlights the lack of emotion that the Woman has. When the Woman reaches the swimmer she hits him on the head with a rock and drags him away. As she does this the audience can hear the baby screaming and crying but the Woman does not even stop or look over at the baby.

The Woman has no empathy or guilt about her role on Earth which presents her as alienated as this is not a normal human reaction to such an extreme scenario. From a feminist perspective, the Woman is not a ‘typical woman’ as she does not have the stereotypical maternal instincts that are often associated with women. As in she does not throw off her mission in order to save the baby as the crying does not affect or disturb her. The animal- human relationship in this scene is significant because it shows how different the Woman and the humans are to each other; simply one has compassion and the other does not. The humans are portrayed as the victims whilst they are deceived by the extra-terrestrial and we pity them as soon as they are taken in by the Woman’s flirtatious personality. There are different interpretations of the film and some critics interpret this film to be a feminist film as the Woman uses sexual advances to lure men back to her mysterious black void. In this film traditional gender roles have been subverted as it is the Woman objectifying the men instead of the other way round. The Woman reduces the men to their physical appearance the same way men often treat women for example when catcalling.

Figure 1

However, towards the end of the film reinforces the set gender roles. The Woman is walking alone through the woods when she meets a logger who seems suspicious but seems nice enough as he warns her the ground is ‘slippy’. This scene makes the audience feel awkward and nervous as a woman and a man are alone together in the woods showing how vulnerable she is and the audience know that something bad is going to happen as he asks her three times if she is alone. The roles have been reversed as she is no longer the predator but the prey. Under the Skin explores what is means to be human and what it means to be a woman. ‘Under the Skin advances a radical proposition: to be female is to be alien… appearance of sex may only be skin deep, even alien forms of life become subject to misogynist violence.’[1] This is relevant to the Woman as even as an alien to Earth she experiences sexual violence. Similarly to how she took her victim while he was lying down unconscious this is how she is nearly raped. Before this scene of sexual violence the music becomes louder and more intense and the sound of the wind blowing through the trees becomes louder. There is a shot of her edited lying down blended into the trees which could suggest that she has finally started to respect Earth and see herself as a human instead of alien and once again highlights her aloneness and vulnerability. This peaceful scene is interrupted by the logger stroking her legs showing she is not as different to human women as she may have thought as the roles have reversed and she is being objectified. The Woman hides and runs away from the predator and she attempts to steal his huge log truck as it reminds her of her van where she is the predator in control. The man catches her again where he forces her to the ground and as he tries to undress, what is ‘under the skin’ is revealed. The Woman peels off the human skin and underneath is neither an obvious female or male alien and she stares at the human skin which shows the parallel between them. This parallel between the human skin and alien is significant because the alien’s skin is unrecognisable, cold and detached from what we are used to. The Woman’s skin is attractive and normal which makes her approachable and that is why she was so successful  with luring men into her van. 

Figure 2

The film has a sad but not surprising end as the man sets her on fire and she burns to death. Before her death she starts to develop emotions and she lets her final victim go free as she decides this alien quest is not for her anymore. The turning point in the film is when the Woman meets her final victim the man who has neurofibromatosis. She takes him back to her portal but she changes her mind and he runs away. Why did she choose this man to be free after she had taken so many? As soon as he gets in the car she starts her usual flirting process and finds out if he has friends or family. When they are back at her ‘house’ this is the first glimpse the audience see of her as an alien not a human. The black portal is the only place she can truly be herself. Once again the music is intense and hair raising. There is a shot showing the alien looking straight at us then the camera shot phases into a side profile of the Woman showing how she deceives not only her victims but the audience too. So the Woman frees this victim maybe because she resonates with this man as he is alienated from society due to his facial deformity and she feels alienated as she has to force herself to blend in. After this interaction she tries to live among humans and she leaves behind this job and alien life. She goes to a café and tries to eat a slice of cake where she nearly chokes as she cannot eat human food and the other customer stare and judge her as even though she tries she will never be the human she desires to be.

Figure 3

Another aspect of the human and animal relationships in Under the Skin is that the Woman forms a relationship with another man she meets at the bus stop. They try to have sex but it is not physically possible for the Woman to have it as her human skin is like a mask covering her alien skin. After they try to have sex the Woman inspects her genital area using a torch as she is horrified to find out she cannot have sex as she is trying to explore a sexual relationship with a man out of pleasure not manipulation for the first time. This is her first relationship with a human where she does not see him as a physical object to exploit him and they try to have a normal intimate sexual experience. The fact that she could not complete this sexual experience symbolises that although the Woman has tried to understand human emotions and blend in with them she will never be as equal as humans as she is not the same under the skin. This film encourages the audience to explore further under the skin as the author of the original book Michael Faber argues that we are all the same under the skin but this film suggests that we are not as the Woman is killed when her true skin is revealed. The film is sometimes filmed as a documentary style when the Woman is picking up her victims. In fact when the victims were picked up, hidden cameras were used and the dialogue was unscripted. This technique makes the men estranged from the Woman and the audience see it from her alien perspective. 

Under the Skin offers a negative perspective to animal and human relationships and it suggests that these relationships can never be equal. The animal/ alien is represented as never being as equal as humans whether that is when she is above them with too much power or when her true self is revealed and she is killed as the logger has never see her kind of existence before. The Woman is presented as an unusual woman protagonist as she is so violent and empowered towards men yet she clearly is not happy with this life as she decides to try and change. Under the skin makes us question what it means to be human and what femininity actually is. To conclude the most important elements of Under the Skin are how easily men can be manipulated by a woman’s temptation of sex and this temptation leads to them trusting the Woman. Also that humans and non humans will never be equal despite how much the other tries to change this as the roles in society are too set. This idea could be linked to one of the Zooscapes about Animal Farm where the animals take the power from humans but it collapses when the pigs see themselves higher than the other animals.

Further Reading

Alicia Byrnes, Johansson’s real performance: Documentary style in Under the Skin, Liverpool University Press < https://muse.jhu.edu/pub/105/article/686932/pdf> [accessed 15 January 2023]

Elena Gorfinkel, Sex, Sensation and Nonhuman Interiority in Under the Skin, Kings College London < https://kclpure.kcl.ac.uk/portal/en/publications/sex-sensation-and-nonhuman-interiority-in-under-the-skin> [accessed 17 January 2023]

Lucas Hilderbrand, On the matter of blackness in Under the Skin, Jumpcut < https://d1wqtxts1xzle7.cloudfront.net/60550559/Hilderbrand-On_the_Matter_of_Blackness> [accessed 17 January 2023]


Osterweil, Ara, Under the Skin: The Perils of Becoming Female, University of California Press, June 2014

[1] Ara Osterweil, Under the Skin: The Perils of Becoming Female, University of California Press, June 2014, pg 1