Art Imitates Life in Disturbing New Film

What you are about to read is disturbing.

It will unnerve you.

It should.

Last week Under the Skin was released in the United States. This low budget British movie has little by way of traditional plot, even less dialogue. Some of it was shot with non-professional actors, at times using hidden cameras. Its director, Jonathan Glazer, has made only a handful of films. For all that, improbably, its lead is a Hollywood star, Scarlett Johansson. Initially, when it was shown in competition at last year’s Venice International Film Festival, it divided audiences. Nevertheless, on this side of the Atlantic it has appeared to ecstatic reviews—already being hailed as an instant cult classic.

It looks set to do well in the States and further afield.

Yet few will imagine the true horror lurking at its core. Neither had I, until that is a couple of weeks after the movie’s release when a news item surfaced. Only then, as these two distinct events snapped together in my mind, did I finally begin to understand what I had seen, and, more significantly, why, like some phantasm, it had haunted me since.

The film is loosely based on a novel by the same name, but the script has been pared-down to the bare bones of the book’s plot. In the end, what emerges is something very strange. From the opening shots accompanied by a hypnotic soundtrack, the audience is soon aware that this is no traditional movie. On one level it is pure cinema, unquestionably so; on an altogether different one, however, it appears to engage with something outside any source material, namely the collective unconscious of a nation.

Ostensibly, it is a Sci-Fi Horror movie hybrid about aliens. One in particular: an unnamed “woman,” played by Johansson, who drives a white van around Scottish streets and lonely country roads picking up solitary men before luring them back to various derelict houses. Thereafter, somewhere with ultra-bright white walls reminiscent of an operating room, they sink naked through the floor to a mysterious liquid chamber where they are held alive, until later that is, when a suction rips the men apart so that their body parts can be “recycled.” Or so it seems, as the “why” of all this is never explained. In fact, nothing much is explained. Relentlessly, the scene of hunter and hunted is repeated over and over again. Throughout the “woman” is aided by a sinister man on a motorcycle whose chief task appears to be the “clear up” [to clean up] after any disappearances. All of which is carried out in a brisk clinical fashion, and in silence.

Poster-art-for-Under-the-Skin_event_mainThere is one exception to this macabre modus operandi, however.

It is a beach scene: a cold, desolate Scottish one where the “woman” has gone to ensnare a young man who has been swimming. In the distance a family—mother, father and child—are seen. At this juncture, the intended victim becomes aware that the family are in difficulty: the mother is being swept out to sea with the husband’s attempts to save her failing. Immediately, the young man brushes aside the unmoved Johansson to help them.  As it transpires all three die, with the bodies soon after recovered and removed by the aliens. There then follows possibly one of the most chilling movie scenes of recent years.

As night falls and the bodies are forensically excised, there is someone left: the child. Unable to stand, it sits helpless on the rocky beach. Anxiously turning round, it starts to scream, looking bewilderedly for someone, anyone, as darkness descends and the waves grow ever closer. It is truly shocking.

What it is to be human and what it is to be inhuman, “alien,” caught in these few seconds of film.

That scene remained fixed in my mind for days after; in fact, I have not been able to free myself of it since. This is all the more baffling given that for decades now we as audiences have been exposed to, and got ever more used to, so much brutality of various kinds on screen.  Why then should this one scene disturb so?

The answer came in a news story just a few days later.

Art Imitates Life in UK
A recent undercover investigation on British television has revealed that the remains of aborted babies are being incinerated as “clinical waste” at UK hospitals, some burned with garbage to heat such facilities: at least 15,500 bodies have been so disposed of in the last two years alone.

On the suburban streets of Britain, with this modern day Gehenna, it seems that Moloch and Baal are once more being placated.

Perhaps it is stating the obvious to say that film captures something of its time; nevertheless, it is often more than we realize.

In its crudest form, one needs only to observe the latest piece of cultural propaganda being pushed to witness this, as whatever is “in the air” is then transferred onto the screen.  This process is both conscious and unconscious, however, and therefore at times will comprise what is being repressed as much as whatever is consciously revealed.

Is Under the Skin therefore a cryptic communication?

For here on display we have an expendable view of human life. Lives all too easily obliterated, with nothing left to say that a human being ever existed in the first place. In this movie, the victims are deliberately chosen because they are alone, and therefore vulnerable—with the expectation being that no one will look for or even miss them. Similarly, in today’s society, there are those that are rarely talked of as they, too, go missing. In fact, daily in the U.K. six hundred such souls disappear. That is the official number of abortions each day in this jurisdiction. And, now, we learn that what little had remained of those so killed ended up mingled with the dark plumes of smoke coming from the rear of the local hospital, no doubt at precisely the same time as, at its entrance, beaming mothers left to well-wishes holding their new born children.

Is it mere coincidence that at the end of this interminably bleak movie the audience is left in a remote isolated location with black smoke drifting upwards as the remains of an “alien” are set alight by a would-be rapist?

Whether it is that child stranded on the beach without any protection as night and swirling waves approach, or human beings helplessly suspended in liquid until used as body parts, or the final nihilistic ending—Under the Skin may be an unwitting testament to the very real darkness hidden at the core of British society.

K. V. Turley


K. V. Turley is a London-based freelance writer and filmmaker.

  • Don

    Disturbing indeed . . . films of this sort seem dangerous to me because society no longer considers that art in a moral or ethical light. The audience too often is simply swept away in the images which, over time, inoculate them to events and images which should be deeply troubling. The rising black smoke from the hospital should ignite screams but instead brings little more than a shrug.

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  • Rose

    Thank you for the warning. I immediately removed this from my Netflix queue.

  • mamlukman

    I saw this at the Toronto Film Festival last Sept. It was screened in a huge theatre, and Scarlett and the director were there to answer questions. As has been mentioned, it divides people into two groups: some thought it was a triumph of artistic film making. Others (like me) thought it was total crap. I rated it last among the 91 movies I saw in 2012. A lot of people walked out. I think if you were familiar with the book, it might make some sense. But otherwise, it’s just a series of scenes, some more chilling than others, but all chilling. Scarlett talked about her “journey” and how the character becomes more human. I didn’t see that. It’s disjointed, there’s no internal logic (she doesn’t know how to watch TV, but she knows how to drive a car), and nothing is explained (why is she taking these men? What happens to them?). On the plus side, as Scarlett herself pointed out, Scarlett has a certain reputation which is not borne out by the facts–she has never exposed herself in any movie. But she does here.

  • dogeno

    Crikey, did not know about this use of humans. Also did not expect to see a big name in such a low budget movie.

  • tom

    Britain is gone.

    • Howard

      We’re all gone. It has been rightly said that in a few centuries parents will tell their children stories about us to frighten them into behaving.

      In his biography of St. Francis, Chesterton points out that the Dark Ages were needed to purify the imagination of Europe. I wish there were some other way, but I am afraid it will take another Dark Age to wash our filth away. As with the last one, much also that is of value will be lost.

  • John Byde

    Not surprised it comes from Britain. We’re even further down the slippery slope than the US. Might give this one a miss!

  • MrSottobanco

    Standard atheism. People have no souls. Humans need meat. Aliens need body parts. Moral relativism.

    • Howard

      But in spite of it all, hey, at least we’re not the Nazis! At least that’s what we keep telling ourselves. Hey, it’s also exactly what the doctors involved in the Tuskegee Experiment said.

  • Rosemary58

    On the BBC many, many years ago, I saw several genetics workers interviewed. They bragged about their work of harvesting eggs from aborted girl fetuses. It still gives me the creeps.

    • TroubleAtTheMine

      That is very creepy. Why do they harvest the eggs?

      • Rosemary

        For some research they were doing but I don’t recall what it was. The BBC is creepy anyway; when I was last in England (2002 and never going back), I saw stuff on it that I would not let even my dog see. Changing the channel was not helpful, either.