From the Archives: Best Movies of the Decade: Under the Skin

From the Archives: Best Movies of the Decade: Under the Skin

In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it. 

Without further ado, I present to you: FROM THE ARCHIVES.

Originally posted on Cinema76.

We voted for our top 25 movies of the 2010s, and compiled the list to measure our collective favorites! We’re going to deep dive on our top ten, and then individual lists will be published after Thanksgiving! See all of our best of the decade posts here. And for our 31 favorite horror movies of the decade, go here.

5. Under the Skin (dir. Jonathan Glazer, 2013)

I remember being somewhat unmoved by Under the Skin when I first saw it in the theater. I found it to be stylish and engaging, but it felt like a side story clinging to the edge of a much larger, more thorough world. It felt like an artsy fartsy spin-off to an established sci-fi universe. A DVD special feature, if you will, only the universe it comes from doesn’t otherwise exist. Seeing that it was based on a novel, I did a little research and found that the source material might have been more what I was looking for at the time. Per the Wikipedia entry, in the novel we learn a fair amount more about the lead character, her feelings, her motivations, and her home planet. We learn why she’s been tasked with abducting innocent people off the street. Heck, we even learn her name.

I remember wondering why this movie decided to reduce the story it was telling to stylish visual abstractions and minimal dialogue, when clearly there was so much more to explore.

And then I went to bed.

As I closed my eyes for my nightly battle against my inner monologue, I found behind my eyelids a slideshow of haunting imagery that wormed its way into the folds of my brain. I thought of the stark mono-colored backdrops of the alien settings. I thought of the infant crying on the beach, knowing that his parents had disappeared, but not yet that they had drowned violently while our protagonist watched with complete detachment. I thought of the one victim having to process that no, he will not be getting laid tonight, and will instead be trying to wrap his head around the notion that he is now trapped in something explicitly supernatural. I thought about how scary it must be to look across the murky pond of imprisonment to see another poor soul who, maybe just a few hours prior was just as confused and scared as you are, and to then see this person suddenly reduced to an empty bag of skin with a face.


The haunting score by Mica Levi also worked its way into my thoughts, certain portions of it already giving the hairs on my neck a Pavlovian response. At the time, I was unaware of how many subsequent cinematic soundscapes would be designed in the shadow of Under the Skin, nor of how each would trigger the same fear response for years to come. Certain adjacent melodies still conjure goosebumps to this day.

But this is all tactile stuff, really, more indicative of Jonathan Glazer’s skills as a film technician than anything else. Yet Under the Skin manages to haunt on a much deeper, more personal level, and it wasn’t until I’d consumed the film multiple times that I was really able to appreciate why. Before I get started, a little blurb from film history:

We all know and love Alien. It’s one of the most intensely terrifying films ever made, and it creeps most out on a cellular level, tapping into a fear so primal that any human who can’t feel it could be suggested to be not a human at all. This is by design. Writer Dan O’ Bannon expressed what his intentions were when he created the concept of a face-hugger and a chest-burster. Said of his motivations:

“I’m going to attack the audience. I’m going to attack them sexually.”

The script was written with the Ripley character being of non-specific gender. Meaning that the character could have been male or female and it wouldn’t have mattered. But the original chest-bursting sequence absolutely had to happen to a male. Why?

So that men could feel the fear inherent to being impregnated.

It’s a feeling that women know all too well. Be it consensual or no, for women, any sexual contact at all could potentially leave something incubating in their womb. For men, this is simply not the case. Certainly, I’m not trying to discount or comparatively minimize the trauma of male assault victims, but the flavor of it is inherently different nonetheless. When speaking of the concept of childbirth I’ve often joked that I never want anything to leave my body that could eventually have an opinion. This is humor based in my own blind fear of having a life grow inside of me (it’s also in total ignorance of that fact that my diet is so poor that my poop may one day find a path to sentience).

So Alien persists because it taps into a fear that all women have while simultaneously creating a window into that fear for men. As such, it’s a film that, even if there were no sequels to drive the point home (Prometheus makes a remarkable return to the body horror themes of the original film — I’ll save that for another piece), it would still be etched into the moviegoing audience’s collective subconscious.


What does this have to do with Under the Skin? Well for me, everything. You see, Under the Skin is most successful to me when it is trying to be scary, and the scariest thing about it is this: If some Scarlett Johansson-looking lady pulled over to chat me up, flirt, and eventually offer me a ride, there are few circumstances where I wouldn’t fall for it hook, line, and sinker. The voice in the back of my head that says “this is suspicious” would be barely audible over the other voice that screams “look at butt look at boobs get sex get sex get sex get sex get sex.” And while all genders are certainly at risk of falling victim to the predations of a malevolent stranger, it’s typically women who receive the brunt of it (many due to the “get sex get sex get sex” mentality of many men that I, myself exhibited above). When I walk home from work, or when a person asks me for directions, or when I am offered a potential kindness by an attractive stranger, I can be reasonably sure that I won’t end up a victim of an assault. The women of the world can’t really say the same, making it so that caution becomes a part of the day’s regularly scheduled programming. Much like the fear of potential impregnation, women are required to live with this looming entity at all times. And much like Alien did with the body horror aspect of pregnancy, Under the Skin does with the existential horror of being a potential victim by default.

Under the Skin tapped into the fear of street harassment that women live with daily and made it accessible and terrifying to me, a man, who rarely feels like he’s on the receiving end of anything he didn’t ask for. That’s powerful filmmaking. That’s why, at the end of this decade, I found myself thinking back to Under the Skin more so than many other movies. Jonathan Glazer’s abstract sci-fi horror film produced in me a fear that was new… and that was already real for a large portion of the population.

Suddenly it made sense why the mythology of the human-processing alien abductors was boiled off the top of the script: knowing something isn’t scary. It’s the state of unknowing that brings a chill to one’s soul, and when it comes to hopping into a car with a stranger, well, “knowing” doesn’t typically occur until much too late.

Stay safe out there, friends.

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