Warning: spoilers from throughout the film are discussed after the jump.
It seems to me that the key shot in Under the Skin, the new art house sci-fi horror film from director Jonathan Glazer, is that of an ant.
Recent Stories in Culture
Following an effects-heavy, 2001-esque sequence signifying the birth of, well, something, we see a man on a motorcycle gather a limp female body from the side of the road. She is taken to a blindingly white room where our nude, unnamed protagonist (Scarlett Johansson*) slowly strips her and then puts on her clothes. The now-naked body sheds a single tear—but that doesn’t interest Johansson.
What does interest her is an ant, which presumably hitched a ride on the apparently-not-dead girl’s body. Johansson allows the ant to crawl onto her finger, where she stares at it contemplatively. The ant’s head is magnified several times; its appearance and behavior is clearly giving her pause.
And then she’s off: After a stop by the mall for new duds, Johansson goes on the prowl. She’s in a SUV, stopping random men on the street in order to ask for directions. If they don’t meet her specifications—single, lonely, no family to notice they’re gone—her face goes blank and she speeds off. If they do, she convinces them to come home with her, where they are captured in some sort of liquid glass and slowly killed until their skin is all that remains (don’t ask, too complicated/abstract).
Following a couple of modestly repetitive efforts in this vein, Johansson is moved to something approximating pity. After seeing herself in the mirror and turning her back on a jet black alien figure, she sets free a sad young man with a facial deformity she had captured and stumbles away from her house of horrors, purpose lost.
It soon becomes clear why Johansson was fascinated by that ant: She herself is little more than a drone, a part of the collective that carries out a certain task and is unsure what to do when that task is interrupted. She isn’t working alone: the man on the motorcycle, connected to her by some sort of hive-mind, tracks down the escapee and returns him to his doom. The motorcyclist, along with several other identically kitted brethren, then split off and search for Johansson.
Johansson spends the rest of the film with a more or less blank look on her face. She is trapped between worlds. Despite appearing human, she cannot eat, cannot laugh, cannot love—cannot make love, apparently. So when she is nearly raped, and then burned alive by her attempted rapist once he discovers what she truly is, it is hard to feel much in the way of pity.
I think I get what Glazer is going for in that final brutal sequence. The would-be rapists asks many of the same questions Johansson asked during her hunting trips and as he rips the clothes from her body the soundtrack cues up the score from the sequences in which she lured unwitting men to their doom. The cover (the skin) doesn’t matter: underneath we are just as vicious as they, whatever "they" are. We are confronted with the universality of evil, or some such.
The problem is that Glazer has done such a good job of convincing us of Johansson’s inhumanity that I simply reject the implied connection and have trouble feeling moved by her brutal removal from this plane of existence. She is beyond redemption, not because of what she has done (though it’s pretty terrifying and horrible) but because of what she is. One doesn’t feel horror at the destruction of a ant's nest; one is simply glad it has been destroyed.
It may be useful to contrast Under the Skin and The Man Who Fell to Earth, another film about an alien posing as human who is subjected to man’s inhumanity. We are given something to identify with in the latter, nothing in the former. As a result, one works and the other falls apart.
It’s worth noting that Johansson has quietly evolved into a fascinatingly versatile actress. In the last six months or so she has stared in an art house sci-fi horror hybrid (Under the Skin), a big budget comic book tent pole (Captain America: The Winter Soldier), a quirky Oscar-winning love story (Her), and a fun if somewhat slight indie comedy (Don Jon).
*None of the characters in this movie have names; for simplicity’s sake, I’m going to simply refer to them by the name of the actor who portrays them.