The easy, and wrong, way to talk about Under the Skin is through analogy and metaphor: it’s The (Wo)Man Who Fell To Earth by way of David Lynch, or something like that. I resist this approach, because it reduces any discussion of the movie to outside references, and threatens to do a disservice to what the experience of watching the film is actually like. Talk about something only through the lens of something else and you end up not talking about the thing itself at all. The thing itself works very hard to not be pigeonholed, not merely in the sense of “is it SF or not?” but “what is it, really?”
Even a simple description of what happens in Under the Skin is likely to disappoint. After a sound-and-light show that implies birth or creation or both, we meet two people, sort of. One is a man who rides a motorcycle and rescues what appears to be the dead body of a prostitute from the bank of a river. The other is a woman (Scarlett Johannson), who strips off the dead woman’s clothes and dons them herself. This, the movie implies, is not the only disguise she wears.
We do not know what she is or where she comes from, but enough clues present themselves over time for us to connect the dots. She drives around Glasgow in a van, hitting up young men on the pretext of asking for directions. Are they going anywhere? Are they alone? Do they want a lift? A few say yes. She seduces them, then places them into a kind of suspended animation where their bodies are, for lack of a better word, harvested. Her cold-bloodedness is absolute, as we learn in a chilling scene where she kills a surfer who is preparing to save a drowning man.
The details of her mission matter less than the mechanics of it — how her execution of it changes her, because of what she discovers along the way. The woman is canny enough to choose targets that will most likely not inspire others to come looking for them, and understands how easy prey can be found by the male libido. Then one night she picks up a man with a grotesque deformity (not makeup, I understand; the actor himself suffered from craniofacial fibrous dysplasia), and … something about his detachment from others clicks with her, I guess. He is alone, and in her own way, she is alone, and with that she is no longer able to see him—or other men, for that matter—as victims any longer.
That is my reading of the film, and in my opinion there’s a good deal more beyond what I have offered here to support it, but I might well have already said too much. Part of the strength of a film like this is not in having someone explain it to you, but in meeting the film halfway yourself. If that sounds too much like work, so be it. But most any movie that aims to do more than waste your time requires at least some effort, and I think we’ve reached a point in popular culture where even a casual viewer has enough experience with things like non-linear storytelling to be less thrown by a film like this than it might first appear.
Science fiction is a good vehicle for this kind of storytelling. With SF, we’re invited to suspend our disbelief for openers; with good SF, that receptivity can be used as a doorway through which to deliver other points. What is ostensibly a movie about an alien becomes (among other things, but mainly this for me) an examination of how male and female behavior are as much learned and practiced roles as they are biological assignments. The Johannson character understands how to play that game very well to lure in other men; the other men are mostly gormless lunks who don’t mind being played to.
Then her performance is punctured from two directions, outside and inside . After that, she's — well, not human, but not the same kind of inhuman she was before. She has become something stuck all the more between two poles, unable to retreat fully back into what she was, or move towards what others ostensibly see her as. She in, in short, damned, and it's remarkable how keenly the movie is able to make us feel this by doing so little.
What struck me first about Under the Skin, and what remains with me as one of the main reasons to see it at all, is Scarlett Johannson. After watching Lucy I was struck by how unhesitant she was to dehumanize her character, and in Under the Skin she goes an order of magnitude further with that project. I am drawn to actors who embody a type or a presence rather than create a performance; Takeshi Kitano comes to mind. Johannson hardly seemed like such an actress. But in Lucy, and now in this film, she embodies rather than performs. The blanker she gets, the more we want to see what’s in there—until the moment we finally do see what’s under there. It's not a horrifying moment; rather, it's a tragic one.