Magazine | May 19, 2014, Issue

Sister from Another Planet

A review of Under the Skin

A van cruises the darkened streets of Glasgow. The driver is a woman in a fur coat, with lustrous hair and red pillows for lips. Sometimes she pulls up next to men and asks for directions, chit-chats a little with them, and, if they turn out to be alone, headed to nowhere in particular, offers them a lift. Then there’s some flirtation, an invitation back to her place, which leads to a sultry slow-walking striptease, in which she retreats into the darkness and the men, tumescent, follow her, stripping in their turn. It’s only when they’re naked that the floor beneath them turns viscous, then liquid, and they sink away into the dark — their eyes, until the liquid closes over them, still fixed on her.

She is Scarlett Johansson. She is also a space alien.

The movie, Under the Skin, is the second recent film to divide Johansson’s sexual persona against itself, to alienate her mind and heart from her extremely famous body. In Spike Jonze’s Her, she was a throaty voice without a form, a virtual consciousness who longed to be enfleshed. Here, under the direction of Jonathan Glazer, she is a mind enfleshed, but her flesh is not her own: She is a nonhuman consciousness wearing a (luscious) human body, using it to perform a specific task (in which the lusciousness is helpful), and regarding her form — at first, at least — as a mere tool, rather than an identity.

The movie’s plot, as sketched above, sounds a lot like an art-house remake of Species, the gynophobic mid-1990s horror-thriller in which Natasha Henstridge picked up men at L.A. nightclubs and then turned into a clawed-and-tentacled predator after sex. But Johansson’s visitor isn’t here for predation of that sort: She doesn’t mate with her victims, she just collects them, with a motorcycle-riding courier assisting her, for some grisly form of experimentation or exploitation that happens at a remove from her own work. She isn’t a praying mantis devouring her lovers; she’s more a naturalist collecting specimens for someone else to study and dissect.

In the novel on which the movie is based, her character has an explicit identity and purpose: She’s collecting men for an otherworldly race that has the same palate as the aliens in the “To Serve Man” episode of The Twilight Zone, who fatten and butcher us and serve us up as steak. But Glazer’s film removes those details, and their satirical edge, and leaves things more ambiguous — and thus, I would say, more disturbing. (The one shot of what happens to the men in the liquid is memorable, and not in a pleasant way.)

But this is an existential horror film, so the grisly fate of the Scotsmen entrapped by an alien soon cedes center stage to the fate of the alien herself, as she gradually gives in to a mission-altering fascination with her adopted form, her semi-humanity, her unexpected connection to the species she’s supposed to be collecting.

At first, her detachment from our concerns seems as absolute as our detachment from the fate not even of animals, but of insects. In a scene more unsettling than any of the science fiction, she goes about the business of acquiring a human specimen while ignoring — and furthering — a horrific family tragedy involving a beach, a riptide, and a toddler. (Consider yourself warned.)

That detachment frays the more time she spends in our world, watching us and listening, surrounded by our bodies and our buzz. The turning point is an encounter with a badly deformed man who has to be coaxed into believing that a beautiful woman would even talk to him, let alone touch him: Thereafter, her identity as a hunter gives way, and she becomes an explorer, a refugee, and eventually, predictably, prey herself.

The movie has been much praised, for Johansson’s alienated-yet-affecting performance and Glazer’s direction alike, and the praise is understandable. Under the Skin is haunting, frightening, mood-altering, and simply unusual — a strange, distinctive object unlike anything else on screen right now.

But if you asked me, did you like this film, the answer would be mostly “no.” The mood is ultimately oppressive; Johansson’s nudity, however aestheticized and un-erotic, is still exploitative; the deliberate unsettledness and unpleasantness of what’s on screen feel too much like ends unto themselves. The movie felt like a dark dream — one from which, at the end, I was glad to have awakened.

In This Issue


Politics & Policy

Using Race

Each time the federal government of these United States comes close to emerging from its eternal psychosis on the question of using a crude system of racial classifications to condition ...
Politics & Policy

Liberal Slumlords

When Donald Sterling, the notoriously racist billionaire owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, was caught on tape saying hateful things about African Americans, it sparked a torrent of news coverage, ...


Books, Arts & Manners

Politics & Policy


In “Among the Euro-Weenies,” a classic report on European attitudes toward America in the 1980s, P. J. O’Rourke describes going to dinner in London. “Your country’s never been invaded,” sniffs ...
Politics & Policy

Old School

I’m, like, digging Charles Murray’s new book, which grew — at the suggestion of his colleague Karlyn Bowman — out of in-house tips on grammar and usage for super-smart kids ...
Country Life

Into the Woods

Every month I get a haircut; every decade my property gets a tree cut. This was a regular feature of old-time husbandry, as reflected in fiction or correspondence where one ...


Politics & Policy


Courses to Success A professor in college once told me that the first step in choosing your career is deciding whether you prefer to spend your life working with people, things, ...
Politics & Policy

The Week

‐ The latest scandal lesson: When you’re talking to a mistress a quarter your age, be sure to be decorous. ‐ Speaker John Boehner said that the reason his House Republican ...

Hashtag Diplomacy

From the Twitter account of State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki, April 2014: “The world stands #UnitedforUkraine. Let’s hope that the #Kremlin & @mfa_Russia will live by the promise of hashtag.” From ...
Politics & Policy


ONE LIVED AND ONE DIED Young men and cars offer the joy of coming of age with the risks of tragedy. There is the monstrous injustice of the death, banal statistical references, and life goes on. And ...
Happy Warrior

Bigots by Birth

If you’re like me — a hominid American with external gonads and a melanin ratio that gives your epidermis a pinkish hue — then I’ve got some bad news for ...

Most Popular

Film & TV

Why We Can’t Have Wakanda

SPOILERS AHEAD Black Panther is a really good movie that lives up to the hype in just about every way. Surely someone at Marvel Studios had an early doubt, reading the script and thinking: “Wait, we’re going to have hundreds of African warriors in brightly colored tribal garb, using ancient weapons, ... Read More
Law & the Courts

Obstruction Confusions

In his Lawfare critique of one of my several columns about the purported obstruction case against President Trump, Gabriel Schoenfeld loses me — as I suspect he will lose others — when he says of himself, “I do not think I am Trump-deranged.” Gabe graciously expresses fondness for me, and the feeling is ... Read More
Politics & Policy

Students’ Anti-Gun Views

Are children innocents or are they leaders? Are teenagers fully autonomous decision-makers, or are they lumps of mental clay, still being molded by unfolding brain development? The Left seems to have a particularly hard time deciding these days. Take, for example, the high-school students from Parkland, ... Read More
PC Culture

Kill Chic

We live in a society in which gratuitous violence is the trademark of video games, movies, and popular music. Kill this, shoot that in repugnant detail becomes a race to the visual and spoken bottom. We have gone from Sam Peckinpah’s realistic portrayal of violent death to a gory ritual of metal ripping ... Read More