Under the Skin is a 2013 film directed by Jonathan Glazer, loosely based on Michel Faber’s 2000 novel with the same name. It received praise from critics, particularly with regards to Scarlett Johansson’s performance, Glazer’s directorial style, and Mica Levi’s score. It has been named one of the year’s best films by many critics and publications.
The film is set in Glasgow, Scotland, where an alien entity in the form of a woman drives around the streets in search of prey. She seduces isolated and forsaken male victims into an otherworldly dimension where they are stripped and consumed. However, existence in all its complexity eventually begins to change the alien visitor, making her examine who and what she really is.
The film has many themes, such as loneliness, identity-seeking, and what it means to be human. Another of the film’s main themes is the human obsession with beauty.
When the alien (from here on referred to as Scarlett) enters human society, the first thing she takes note of is our obsession with looks. As an alien, she observes human behaviour with ”unspoiled” eyes, noting things we might not as we are brainwashed by the society where we are born and raised. She sees fashion stores, make-up stores, and advertisement, thus she immediately understands how to dress attractively.
Furthermore, she easily charms men into getting in the car with her. Gladly hopping into a van with a strange but beautiful woman, they have no idea that they will be literally consumed by their own fantasy. The fact that many of the men who are seduced were unaware of being in a film makes if even more striking how easily they are fooled by appearance. Once in the house of the alien, the men literary walk straight into their own deaths, never even taking their eyes of the alluring beauty of Scarlett’s body.
The men’s deaths are also a motif for the film’s theme. They become skin. Their way of dying mirrors what brought them to their deaths: they were too obsessed with sex, with beauty, with skin, and didn’t care about the person underneath the skin—thus they become only skin themselves.
Loneliness is a key theme, especially in connection with appearance. The deformed man is lonely, because people find his appearance repulsive. Scarlett is lonely, but she is unable to connect with anyone because all men she encounters only see her as a sexual object. Halfway through the film, she starts to explore what lies underneath the surface of the basic instincts of survival and reproduction; she begins to feel empathy, she tries to eat cake, tries to have sex. She yearns for human connection not based on a sexual motive, but she struggles because of her alien nature. In the end she flees to the wilderness. And there is her last human encounter, with a man who like so many others only view her as an object for his sexual desire; a man who, once he sees her for who she is—underneath all the beauty of her skin—is repulsed.
Under the Skin is a comment on our obsession with beauty. In today’s media-saturated world we are bombarded by images of what we should look like and what we fail to look like. The demands of appearance are especially harsh for women; almost everywhere we look, we see images of tall, thin, and beautiful women. The fact that most photos are enhanced with photoshop makes it even worse. This emphasis on physical attractiveness is detrimental to mental health and self-esteem.
We need to reshape our views on beauty. We need to look beyond appearance. We must recognize that our worth is not based on our looks. We must value inner beauty instead of outer beauty. Because then we will feel better about ourselves, and then our relationships to others are not based on appearance but who we really are on the inside. This is the important message of Under the Skin: that we look ”under the skin”.