Seven years after the release of Under the Skin, people are still confused by not just the ending of the movie, but the plot of the movie as well. There are several things we’d like explained to this day.
Which includes these questions I’ve seen asked again and again on the internet:
- Who are these aliens and why are they here on Earth?
- What is going on in that opening shot?
- Who is that woman that Scarlett Johansson strips naked at the beginning of the movie?
- What does Scarlett Johansson see when she looks in the mirror?
- And, of course: what is the significance of Scarlett Johansson’s body burning in the film’s closing moments?
The main reason these questions are so difficult to answer is that the director, Jonathan Glazer, did not set out to create a faithful adaptation of the source material. While Michel Faber’s original novel is undoubtedly enigmatic and surreal, the book still owns a fairly recognizable story with fully-fleshed characters, robust world-building, and overt social commentary.
Glazer’s film? Not so much. While the movie follows the book’s story (for the most part), very few of the details of the book’s plot are given. As Glazer has indicated in an interview: “I knew then that I absolutely didn’t want to film the book. But I still wanted to make the book a film.” Basically, Glazer had no interest in detailing the minute aspects of the book’s plot, and instead wanted to capture the thematic meat of the novel and what the main character’s story represented.
It can be difficult to assign a singular meaning to the film because of the way Glazer chose to tell the book’s story. There is very little dialogue; rarely is there exposition; we often have no idea what characters are thinking. That lack of detail allows for a more open interpretation of the film, which means viewers can assign whatever meaning makes sense to them.
Which is great! That’s the beauty of art. But that doesn’t mean we can’t use details from the book and visual moments from the film to find some more concrete answers to the questions detailed above. So let’s try to find some evidence-based conclusions for those confusing elements of the film.
To do that, we’ll focus on:
- The plot of the book
- Where the movie diverges from the book
- The opening scene
- The dead woman
- The aliens’ mission on Earth
- The mirror
- Why she burns at the end
The plot of the book Under the Skin
While Glazer’s stylistic choices seemingly separate the film from the source material, the meat of the book’s plot is indeed present in the movie. So, it’s worth giving a broad overview of the book.
Basically, the novel opens on the main protagonist, Isserley. This is Scarlett Johannson’s character in the film—except in the movie, Johannson’s character isn’t given a name (more on that later). Isserley is an alien who has been altered to look like a human. This new skin causes her quite a bit of pain (the aliens give huge breasts so she can be attractive to men they’re trying to capture, but she still performs her job dutifully.
Her job? To hunt for humans in the Scottish Highlands. To her alien race, the meat of humans—which are known to these aliens as “vodsel”—is a delicacy. In particular, she hunts for well-muscled men and brings them back to a meat-processing farm for consumption. In order to determine a man’s…uh, eatability? She spends time with each man in her car. And if the man is desirable, she injects them with a drug and takes them back to the farm.
Isserley starts to have reservations about her job after meeting an alien named Amlis, who saw it as cruel to eat humans. Not only does she start to agree with Amlis about the alien race’s treatment of humans, but she’s attracted to Amlis because he is interested in her—a far cry from the alien elite who simply want to use her figure to attract men to the meat farm.
While driving, Isserley is unwillingly stopped by a hitchhiker, whose pregnant wife is giving birth. The man needs a ride to the hospital where his wife is going through labor. During the trip, the man discusses death, and how he believes that when we die we come back to exist on Earth in some other form.
It’s in that moment that Isserley’s car malfunctions and she crashes into a tree. The man is ejected from the window, but remains alive. Isserley then wonders what will happen to her body, as she must activate an explosive that will destroy both her and all evidence of the car crash. She believes her atoms and particles will disperse into the environment and air. She then hits the switch.
Where the movie version of Under the Skin diverges from the book
As you can see, very few of the book’s details are part of the finished film. But still, the book’s plot informs the movie. Glazer simply strips away the novel’s needless plot specifics and instead focuses on Isserley’s mission.
The major difference, however, is the ending. In the book, Isserley comes to empathize with the man who is trying to get his wife to the hospital. Isserley observes their stressful situation and their desire to grow a family, and is moved by the man’s belief that there’s more to life than our physical beings. She is conflicted about whether or not to kill the man right before she crashes.
In the film, Johansson’s character has already decided that she no longer wants to hunt for men. After connecting with the disfigured man—who becomes the movie’s equivalent of Amlis from the book—she abandons her fur jacket (which had become a symbol of her hunting prowess) and decides to run from the motorcycle man who has been ensuring that she carries out her job duties.
This interesting twist provides some insight into why Glazer felt it necessary to diverge from the book’s plot. Seemingly, Faber’s novel ends ambiguously. Isserley is experiencing a moment of conflict in the car about killing the man when she accidentally crashes. Thus, her life ends at a crossroads: does she or does she not want to continue killing these men for the sake of her alien race?
But Glazer doesn’t end with a crossroads, and instead actively chooses the righteous path for Scarlett when he allows her to let the disfigured man go. After that, Johannson’s character deviates from Isserley and owns a completely different character trajectory as she runs away from her monitor (the motorcycle man).
Understanding the plot of Under the Skin
This major difference is what Glazer meant when he said, “I knew then that I absolutely didn’t want to film the book. But I still wanted to make the book a film.” The director loved the book’s themes and the central character’s main conflict. But he also didn’t believe all of the book’s details were necessary for exploring those ideas.
Thus, many of the film’s confusing elements can be answered by observing Glazer’s divergence in the film. The movie’s story doesn’t end at a crossroads—the movie’s story moves on from a crossroads. And if that’s the case, then many of the film’s stylistic choices become a visualization of the character’s journey after she empathizes with humans and decides she would like to lead a new life.
So let’s run back through the plot of the movie and explain some of Glazer’s more mysterious storytelling choices.
Explaining the opening scene
Rarely does a movie seem so confusing right out of the gate—but Under the Skin is no ordinary movie. Its plot is very deliberate and cryptic. And the film’s opening shot establishes that truth:
The movie starts with a faint glowing light in the distance. The light grows brighter, and brighter, and brighter—until a blinding blue fills the screen.
We then see what seems like an eyeball forming. The pupil of the eye—which appears to be the last piece before completion—slowly floats towards the rest of the eye.
When the pupil connects, we shift from the animated light fixtures to what looks like a camera lens. The lens then transforms to an actual eyeball.
And that’s when we see the title of the film: Under the Skin.
That timing is no coincidence. The entire opening shot showed us what exists underneath the skin of Scarlett Johannson’s character. As we see by the end of the movie, the alien body that exists underneath the woman’s skin is covered in black. The aliens don’t have eyeballs, so the camera lens is just part of the alien race’s design of the human body.
This is interesting because it immediately signals that Scarlett Johansson’s character has no agency over herself. She is nothing but a vessel—a product designed by her race to infiltrate humans. In that light, we can view this moment as her birth on Earth.
If that’s the case, then the rest of the movie seems much less cryptic, right? Because then Under the Skin essentially becomes nothing more than a coming-of-age story.
Explaining the significance of the dead woman
If the movie is a coming-of-age story, then what is the main character’s journey? Well, we know the movie is building towards that moment where she abandons her mission and escapes into the Scottish mountains. Thus, her character journey can be split into two parts: what she was designed to do on Earth, and what she desires to do on Earth.
So, basically, her path in the film is no different than any person’s journey on this planet. We are born into a world where rules and expectations are outlined for us, and we are expected to abide by those guidelines and blend in with the rest of humanity. While we certainly form our own personalities and quirks, each person must ultimately still become part of the whole if they’d like to coexist with everyone else.
This theory, I think, is backed up by the scene that follows the camera/eye scene that opens the film. We see the motorcycle man retrieve the dead body of a woman and throw it in the back of a van. He takes her because she resembles Scarlett’s appearance. Then Scarlett strips the woman naked and dons her clothes.
Scarlett doesn’t just take this woman’s clothing, but even uses her name when interacting with men. She becomes Laura…but she’s never truly Laura, is she?
Essentially, Scarlett Johansson is not her own person with her own perspective. Her body is designed to attract males. Her clothes are stolen from a woman named Laura who looks like Scarlett. Hell, even Scarlett’s eyes—the things with which she will see the world—are made of electronics. Her literal perspective on the world is manufactured and man-made (well, alien-made).
In many ways, Scarlett embodies a worker ant—in fact, as we’ll see later in the film, her figure quite resembles an ant. This further supports the idea that Scarlett’s character has no true personality—which sets up a story where she must discover that personality.
Explaining why the aliens are on Earth
The exact reason why the aliens infiltrate Earth is never explained in the movie like it’s explained in the book. However, we can observe the symbolic reason why the aliens have inhabited Earth and assigned Scarlett to capture these men.
Specifically, let’s focus on the motorcycle man, who is a constant presence throughout Under the Skin. To me, he comes to represent that grand ethereal power that keeps the human race in sync, that assigns roles for each person, that determines humanity’s make-up. He is part of the alien community that built Scarlett for the purposes of looking beautiful and attracting men—that becomes her mission in life.
You could view the motorcycle man, then, as a sort of God-like figure. But really, I think he comes to represent the groupthink mentality on Earth. You are born into a world with rules, and you must follow those rules if you are to exist alongside everybody.
Thus, the motorcycle man comes to represent that societal power that chooses to either uplift or banish people depending on whether they fall in or out of line.
But what if those “rules” are abhorrent to you? What if you don’t like to act the way you’re supposed to act? What if you’d like to forge your own path?
Well, sometimes the world doesn’t make that so easy. Throughout history, we’ve seen figures who step outside the groupthink get ostracized and excommunicated from society and culture. And once that happens, they then become an “other” and go on their own journey for fulfillment that exists outside the rules of society.
This divergence from the groupthink can exist in gigantic and polarizing forms (think Kanye West). But it can also exist in the way we perceive life ideologically or philosophically. For example, it took me many years to admit to myself that I was an atheist. For so long, I believed in God and prayed to God because I was scared to abandon a part of my life that I was told for so long was an essential part of my being.
However, even once you start down that new path, the “motorcycle man” will always come for you. To this day, I still shy away from telling certain people in my life that I’m an atheist. Like, I’ll probably never tell my dad that I’m an atheist because I know how much that will hurt him and how he’ll never look at me the same again. In a way, he patrols me just like the motorcycle man does. I choose to give off an image of myself as opposed to pursuing my true self around him.
That, I think, is what the entire alien race represents. I’m not necessarily scared of my dad—I’m scared of the groupthink my dad is part of. I’m scared of people, of humanity, of these rules I’ve been asked to follow since the day I was born.
Explaining the significance of the scene with the mirror and the disfigured man
Knowing what we know about Scarlett’s journey in the movie, the mirror scene makes a bit more sense, right? If we’re just trying to track the bare-bones plot of the movie, then there’s no explanation or expository dialogue that tells us why Scarlett looks so troubled whenever she looks into a mirror.
But if we think about the thematic focus on the film? Then her look into the mirror is equivalent to the moment when I realized I’m an atheist. Deep down, it was something that was always true about myself—I just needed to discover it.
Likewise, Scarlett isn’t just looking at her own image in that mirror. She’s looking through the skin she’s wearing—the skin that was designed for her—at her true self. She’s discovering all of the emotional conflict that’s been brewing inside of her during her time on Earth.
This climactic moment comers after she becomes more aware of humanity’s beauty after interacting with the disfigured man. She connects with his otherness, and discovers that she doesn’t like that she’s been manufactured to hunt down these men. She doesn’t want to be killing these men. She sees beauty in the world and would much rather connect with humans.
Explaining the significance of the disfigured man
During her journey, Scarlett picks up a disfigured man. But before she takes the man back to her house where he is sucked up by the black goo, Scarlett connects with him. She observes his hands, feels the touch of his skin on her neck, understands that he’s never had a woman in his life. He is—much like her—completely alone.
He is an “other.”
So while Scarlett tries to don that skin she’s been trained to wear, she also cannot shake the fact that she has emotionally connected with this man. Which is why she stares into the mirror after dropping the disfigured man off at the farm—this is the climax of the film. This is the moment she discovers a crucial ideological truth about herself. That she would like to have more interactions like that with people. That she’d like to be more than a vessel that was designed for one specific purpose. That she’d like to contribute to the world in her own way.
So following the mirror scene, she runs back and saves the disfigured man. After that, she sheds her hunter skin (the fur coat) and escapes out into the world.
Explaining why she burns at the end
When I finally identified as an atheist, it wasn’t the final step for me. After that moment of self-discovery, I had to then figure out what those beliefs represented about myself. What are my philosophies on life and death? How do I justify my existence if there is no afterlife? What am I truly living for?
Likewise, after the film’s climactic moment, Scarlett tries to discover her true self. She heads out into the world without her coat, and we can often see her shaking from the cold. Without the predatory identity that was given to her, she feels naked and lost.
From here on out, then, every experience contributes to Scarlett finding her true identity.
Which puts the ending of the film in an interesting context. In the novel, Scarlett chooses to burn herself because she is hopeful there’s something more fulfilling on the other side of life—she is, again, at a crossroads.
But in the film, Scarlett has already chosen her own path—and then she’s burned alive by the man who tries to rape her. She discovers that the real world is just as cruel and unforgiving as her makers. Just because you’ve chosen to forge your own trail doesn’t mean there won’t be obstacles along the way.
In many ways, Scarlett must suffer for the sins she’s committed. She must reckon with the human lives she’s destroyed. And, in particular—and in ironic fashion—she must pay for the fact that she left a small child behind at the shore of the ocean earlier in the film. Much like that child, she must now exist in this world without a family, without any real foundation. She can no longer lean on the identity she was given by her makers—she must learn to live on her own.
This recalls the imagery of the mirror. When Scarlett looks at herself in the mirror, she isn’t just seeing the good within—she’s seeing the monster that exists on the outside. She has been mean and cruel to the human race. And for that, she must suffer.
So in the film’s final moments when Scarlett fights off the man trying to rape her, she isn’t just fighting off the ugliness of mankind—she’s confronting her own ugliness and past sins. In these final moments, Scarlett is forced to reckon with her true self. She realizes she couldn’t keep pretending to be human. She had to confront a human version of herself. Which causes her to leave her fake skin.
Sometimes, you have to burn something down before you can rebuild—no matter how much it hurts.