James Maloney’s review published on Letterboxd:
What is it to be human? This question seeps through the duration of Under the Skin in an intoxicating manner. Scarlett Johansson's performance as an other-worldly being preying on humanity is alluringly terrifying, yet it slowly peels back to reveal layers of empathy and attempts at understanding.
That empathy is the key to Under the Skin, as Johansson weaponises vulnerability to allure humans to their demise. That vulnerability reads as an attempt at feigning human behaviour, repeating observed patterns without truly understanding their meaning or impact. It isn't until an encounter with a man who has an authentic vulnerability that this being is confronted with the complex nature of humanity.
This beings open sexual vulnerability is weaponised against a very vulnerable young man, who lacks an understanding and comfort in his own sexuality that this creature familiarises with, breeding empathy. Confronted with its ability to inflict cruelty via it's sexuality, the being opens itself up to being authentically vulnerable, and it is in this cross section between empathy and vulnerability that this film finds human nature to lie.
And yet while director Jonathan Glazer claims to have crafted a tale of humanity as a whole, its impossible to escape the gendered and sexual sub text in Under the Skin. Humans as well being empathetic are in a some what contradictory way intensely sexual beings, obsessed with our own and others bodies.
Casting Scarlett Johansson is a stroke of genius in this regard. It takes a woman who has a history with having her body sexualized and scrutinised in an intensely public and unavoidable way and allows her to channel the audiences relationship with her and her body into the performance. We (as in humanity) are obsessed with her body, and this being is so many degrees separated from us that she can't understand why, yet desperately wants to. In this we truly feel Johansson grappling with her own alienation on the basis of her physicality and she expresses this alienation in such an open and earnest way that it almost strips her of all sexuality and leaves nothing but the raw emotion on display.
The gendered subtext shines through in Under the Skin's focus on how power dynamics work within the constraints of sexuality. Its no mistake that this being who has power over exclusively men is played by a woman. And yet that power comes solely from sexuality, and for it to be weaponised she must be divorced from humanity. This commentary of not seeing women as human, and only understanding them through a sexual lense feels like an obvious read until its taken a step further.
This is a film about a being discovering humanity and as she does, and as her vulnerability becomes authentic rather than feigned, shes now open for exploitation. In the trauma of being exploited in such a sexual and personal way, she literally strips herself of the burden of being human.
Under the Skins expression of the difficulty for humans but especially women to navigate their own sexuality without being exploited or having their humanity stripped away is an emotionally engaging and visually stimulating ride we should all undertake.