Under the Skin review: sex as a weapon

Under the Skin red light

Scarlett Johansson is an alien serial killer who sexes men to death in a misogynist fanboy wet dream that also fails to satisfy as science fiction.
I’m “biast” (pro): I’m a big ol’ science fiction geek

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

I have not read the source material

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Scarlett Johansson is an alien. A sexy sexy alien who seduces men and sexes them to death. In Scotland. Except the poor dumb idiots don’t even really get to have sex with Scarlett Johansson. They just go for a ride with her in her white serial-killer van and then end up kinda drowning in some black goo while watching Scarlett Johansson in her undies sashaying sexily toward them. The guys seem okay with this. It’s all very metaphoric. Also science fictiony, in an indie arthouse way. I think it’s supposed to scare men about how they should be careful accepting rides from sexy babes who are nice to them, because they might turn out to be alien serial killers. Because that happens.

Meanwhile, in the real world, real women are raped and killed all the time by actual human men. But we needed a cautionary tale about sexy lady alien serial killers who prey on unsuspecting horny men. If Under the Skin is supposed to make men sympathize with women’s experience of the world, where violence from men is an everyday possibility for all women and a reality for many, I don’t see how that can work when the opposite simply isn’t a likelihood. Fun fact! Did you know? All those scenes of the unnamed Scarlett Johansson alien driving around and stopping to talk to men and luring them into her van? Those guys aren’t actors! And yet none of them actually ended up raped and murdered. Instead, they ended up in a movie in which Scarlett Johansson is a sexy alien who chose them especially to be sexed to death by her. How cool is that for them? It’s awesome, dude.

“Argh” hardly begins to cover it.

There are a ton of ways in which Under the Skin rubbed me the wrong way, but this is a big one: it’s a very safe scare for (straight) men. They can watch this and get a little thrill from thinking about how sexy alien Scarlett Johansson might want to sex them to death, and then they can walk home from the cinema and not worry that somebody driving by in a car is going to slow down and ask for directions and ease them into dropping their guard and offer them a ride and welcome them into the vehicle and then rape and murder them before dumping their body behind a supermarket dumpster. It isn’t going to happen.

Look: I think Johansson (Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Her) (no relation that I am aware of) is pretty damn amazing. I respect that she’s trying to do something different in the film environment of planet Earth that isn’t very kind to women. Except… this isn’t actually very different. I’m sure director Jonathan Glazer (Birth) thinks he is doing something different. And, true, it’s not the usual science fiction of laser blasts and spaceships. And it’s quiet — there’s hardly any dialogue here — and Johansson gets to pull a British accent when she does speak, which she manages fairly well; she’s just generally very good here. I like her as an actor and as a screen presence. But there are two possibilities for her alien character here: either she is doing her sexing and murdering under duress, or she isn’t. There’s a guy in black motorcycle leather and a helmet who follows her around and is either her partner in whatever evil alien plot they’re involved in, or he’s her boss or controller or pimp. So she is either a nasty predator using sex as a weapon because she loves it, or a helpless victim who is being coerced… neither of which is a deviation from filmic stereotypes about women.

Bonus! This is never really science fiction. We never learn what the alien sex plot is all about or why she’s killing human men, and only men. Science fiction requires at least one speculative deviation from reality for us to ponder. And without any pesky SFnal ideas to clutter up the film, there’s little left but metaphors about men and women, violence and sex.

So we’re left with additional and much more disturbing — and not in a good way — figurative implications to be taken from Under the Skin. Like maybe that women are “naturally” incomprehensible alien sex predators who target normal ordinary human men just going about their business, and please enjoy this sci-fi exploration of that “truth.” She might be a little bit nicer to men as she starts to learn a bit of “humanity” — which here could better be termed “manity,” because there are no human women to speak of in this film — but, never you fear, the bitch will still get the comeuppance she deserves in the end.


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