The title Under the Skin is a crucial clue to what’s happening in the movie. It gets at the idea of looking beneath the surface. At going beyond appearance. It’s similar to the popular idiom, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” A book with a great cover could contain an underwhelming story. While a book with a bad cover could still be a narrative masterpiece.
Of course, there’s the pun-y nature of the title. As we come to realize that Scarlett Johansson’s unnamed character (whom we’ll refer to as “The Woman” throughout this article) is actually an alien wearing the skin of a human. So what’s “under the skin” is this alien creature. And the movie does build to the reveal of her true form—which looks like a store mannequin made of igneous rock.
But the real meat of the title doesn’t apply to The Woman at all. Rather than worry about what’s under her skin, you should think about humans from her perspective. She’s the alien on Earth, experiencing human civilization and culture for the first time. While she’s clearly been educated in conversation and driving and what have you, there’s still an innocence about her understanding of people. And a lot of what she’s confronted within the film is what’s happening “under the skin” of humans. What are their thoughts? Their emotions? What’s causing them to make the choices they make?
Under the Skin makes a lot of sense when you realize the first hour of the movie is The Woman coming to understand that humans are pretty wonderful. In little ways, the director, Jonathan Glazer, shows us the positivity of people. The joy and camaraderie of them coming out of a football game. Women applying makeup to other women in the mall. All the happy people in the mall. The way the wife at the beach tries to save her dog from a riptide. The way the husband tries to save the wife from the riptide. The way the stranger tries to save the husband from the riptide. The men she picks up are cheerful and complimentary. When she trips and falls in the street, people help her and check on her.
None of that stuff is necessarily highlighted in an obvious way that draws attention to it. While you watch, you might think it’s a lot of nothing. That it’s an artsy movie lingering on random things and taking its time because that’s what artsy movies do. Which is fair. But, really, what Glazer’s doing is showing rather than telling. You don’t have a random character give a big speech about how flawed yet wonderful people are and that the aliens should consider them as more than meat bags they can feed on, that their true value is what’s “under the skin.” Instead, Glazer gives us enough scenes of people being kind to The Woman that we get the point (hopefully) without the need for exposition.
This sets up the final encounter with the logger. Narratively, the logger is awful. Thematically, he’s fascinating. Why? Because there’s a duality to the character. Obviously, he works as a contrast to the decent people we’d seen throughout Under the Skin. All these nice, normal, everyday people who are, on average, quite kind. This guy, though, is a monster. The first one who truly takes advantage of The Woman. But in that way he’s the closest person to The Woman. She was a predator, luring in lonely, vulnerable men. And the logger is the same: a predator who takes advantage of someone who is lonely and vulnerable. In a weird way, this awful character is the bridge between the aliens and the humans.
Full Explanation: filmcolossus.com/under-the-skin-explained/