Eons ago, in 2013, a paparazzi photo of Scarlett Johansson falling in the streets of Glasgow, Scotland became a meme. In online listicles like these, you can see Johansson surf a gnarly wave, climb a mountain, fight Muhammad Ali, or DJ a sick rave. As far as memes go, it was as universal as it was harmless: A rich and beautiful Hollywood star caught in an embarrassing moment enabled us commoners a moment of schadenfreude.
What we didn't know, and some of us maybe still don't know, is that Johansson didn't fall by accident. It was for a movie. Specifically, a science fiction art film where Johansson plays an alien in the disguise of a human who wanders our world in a mix of awe, confusion, and later terror, as she lures unsuspecting men into a trap.
Under the Skin, a 2013 sci-fi movie from music video director Jonathan Glazer and indie studio A24, is a movie that is one-third bleak, one-third alluring, and one-third boring. It's a movie where nothing happens, yet so much is going on in the subspace of its storytelling. From the meta-casting of Johansson as an ungodly specimen who isn't like anyone around her to its exploration of sexual politics zapped of passion, Under the Skin is an examination of ourselves. That is, examined like animals in a zoo, poked and prodded in fluorescent lighting only to be laughed at by children.
Under the Skin is also the science fiction movie you need to watch on Netflix before it leaves on July 11.
Released in 2013, Under the Skin is a movie with no semblance of plot. Instead, it is one loosely related event after another, all of which are connected by the film's central anti-heroine. A nameless alien (Johansson) drops into Earth and begins hunting unsuspecting, lonely men. Just as they are about to have sex — or maybe they are, and Glazer is messing with us with his "Void" — the men succumb to her trap, where they slowly wither and die.
Why does Johansson's character do this? What is her purpose? Why is there a motorcyclist who collects bodies? Why does she spit out cake? Under the Skin raises a million questions and defiantly answers none of them. It is both a fascinating and frustrating experience to endure as the movie slogs from one dark episode to the next. (For a lot more context, read the 2000 science fiction novel of the same name by Michel Faber.)
In one instance I almost quit the movie completely. At a beach, Johansson's alien encounters a married couple who drown in the ocean, leaving their baby son behind. A surfer, who had struck up a flirty conversation with Johansson before trying and failing to rescue the couple, is violently beaten in the end. His body is dragged along the beach in front of the screaming infant, whose wailing eventually muffles as Johansson stuffs the body into her van. The movie moves on, coldly, though not before parting with the baby in the dark as the ocean tide draws higher.
Truly what the fuck was that all about? Under the Skin isn't concerned with telling us.
Besides abandoning babies and Johansson's falling meme, the movie remains noteworthy for several other eccentricities. It's Johansson's first nude role, and it says a lot it wasn't a big deal. In another era in Hollywood there'd be so much buzz over a famous action star choosing to bare it all for a weird art movie. But clips of Johansson's nude body in Under the Skin hardly crack a million views online, which speaks volumes about the film's intentionally alien-like approach and emotionless portrayal of human sexuality.
The movie's "cast" is made up of unsuspecting locals who had little to no acting experience. This aids in the film's aggressive fascination with norm-core, and in its showing off of untoned bodies with unflattering awe.
But one actor it did cast was Adam Pearson, who suffers from neurofibromatosis that causes severe facial disfigurement. Under the Skin was Pearson's first role, and he plays another one of Johansson's prey. His relatively significant screentime allows us a window into his character's poor life. You just know that meeting and being picked up by a woman, let alone one that looks like Scarlett Johansson, is not an everyday thing for this guy. It is achingly sad when Johansson proposes they go to her place, and Glazer zooms his camera on the man pinching himself. If only he knew what laid ahead of him.
Under the Skin is not an easy movie. It is boring and bleak, and defines humanity — all of humanity — as selfish, ugly, and violent. After spending most of the film as the predator, Johansson's alien becomes the prey as she escapes a rapist who, to his horror, discovers her true nature. And that's that: Humanity sucks and we're as grossed out about ourselves as the rest of the universe.
Under the Skin hardly does anything to answer its own plentiful questions about humanity, but it is effective in letting us decide for ourselves what those answers are.
Under the Skin is streaming now on Netflix until July 11.