The live-action Ghost in the Shell starring Scarlett Johansson is a well-shot action film. Its origins in manga and anime, however, are a great deal more philosophical than the 2017 adaptation. So while you may have been very satisfied by the look and performances of this new version of Ghost in the Shell, you may have felt a bit cooler on its attempts at a deeper exploration of human identity.
But if you're a fan of Scarlett Johansson and a fan of films rife with symbolism and artistic deconstructions of the human experience, then the good news is that the 2013 sci-fi horror movie Under the Skin accomplishes all those things in ways a big-budget film like Ghost in the Shell almost never can.
If you haven't seen Under the Skin, the short version is this: Scarlett Johansson plays an alien who takes on a female form in order to enrapture, trap and in some way consume male victims. She's a literal black widow, if you will. But the way that seemingly simple idea explores human identity be it textually, subtextually or even metatextually is unlike almost any other movie I've personally ever seen. And it handles some of what you might have hoped to see in the 2017 Ghost in the Shell incredibly well.
If you haven't seen Under the Skin, I would say stop reading right now and watch it. But if you have seen it (or you're comfortable with having the story discussed in detail before you do), then read on for why Under the Skin is a great movie to watch after (or even instead of) Ghost in the Shell.
THE FEMALE ACT I
Scarlett Johansson's character is never called by name in Under the Skin and is only credited as "The Female." And if we were to start anywhere, it is the way in which Under the Skin explores what it would be like to be an alien suddenly in the body of a woman but objectively having zero context for what that means. And we learn that by the opening scene that plays out.
The Female is undressing a human woman who is about to die. The quiet dread of the physical assault happening is one we've seen played out in many narratives (and in the real world) before. Our human woman knows all too well the part of her identity as a woman that leaves her open to exactly the indignity this death provides. The impossibility of an alien being part of it is almost superfluous for her.
But for "The Female" we see just how without human identity it is. Johansson is completely naked here, but there's nothing sexual about it. The Female is merely in the task of completing the human disguise by putting on this dying woman's clothes. And, indeed, as the woman does die, it is not her whom The Female feels any connection to, but towards an insect with sharp pincers located on the woman's corpse. Black, inky and perhaps even parasitic -- this is what The Female understands and, as the audience, it is all we can understand of it. So far.
After observing human behavior and even purchasing new clothes, The Female begins her hunt. And again it is in her imitation of humanity that we see the alienness of her and the alienness of the city of Glasgow for an outsider. Like a tourist almost, The Female slowly finds an understanding of the inner workings of Glasgow, at least enough to be able to lure men into her van.
This brings us to a subversion of our collective means of identifying a victim of sexual assault and violence. What does it mean to be a woman alone in a major city if not to be in some potential danger, at least in part? And yet, Under the Skin switches that and shows the universality of sexual violence with the first two men The Female brings back to its lair. In each case, they are drawn in, they remove all the clothes (she only removes some clothes) and then they are enveloped into an inky blackness for later consumption. Seeing a man's identity boiled down to his nakedness only seems strange because it's women whom we usually culturally do that to. An alien is literally in the room doing something that feels very alien, but would not seem so if the roles were reversed.
THE FEMALE ACT II
Being a female-presenting person in human society is a condition that makes detachment from the world nearly impossible. Whether it's stares or catcalling or requests for a smile -- no woman can pass through the world invisible. And this is one of the greatest strengths of Under the Skin, because The Female's presentation does slowly have a more and more profound impact on its identity as the narrative progresses.
We may see it emotionlessly watch the ocean consume someone, but that is when she is physically isolated. It becomes confused when it is dragged by women into a club, unable to continue its procedure of getting men into its van. But it does discover that men will engage it entirely based upon its appearance. Which seems great at first, but not for long. First The Female falls over unexpectedly and is completely confused by the frailty of its body when it needs help from humans to get back up. And it is further aware of its chosen form when a group of men attack her van, seemingly with the intention of physically, psychologically and sexually assaulting it for no reason other than that is is there and looks like a woman. The Female must flee the scene, which speaks volumes of this aspect of female identity and that of many minorities as well.
THE DEFORMED MAN AND METATEXT
The Female's identity shifts in a powerful way when she encounters a man played by Adam Pearson. Pearson has neurofibromatosis, which causes him to grow tumors on his face. And both the character and the actor who portray this role experience the torment of never ever being invisible and of always having at least the perception that their physical appearance is being judged.
And this speaks not only to many people with physical deformities, but it draws an interesting parallel between Pearson's identity through his proverbial skin and Scarlett Johansson's herself. After all, Johansson has been in films since she was ten and, before she could even turn 20, had her butt featured center screen for the entire opening of Sofia Coppola's film, Lost in Translation.
Both Johansson and Pearson know the extremes upon which a person can be identified and hyper-analyzed by their physical appearance. And while to a casual observer it might seem nice to have many people consider you to be among the most beautiful people on the planet, it makes who you are beyond the skin you're wearing often feel grossly undervalued. If Johansson gained some weight, there would be an uncountable number of articles all about how she's let herself go. Is something wrong with her? Is she pregnant?
Under the Skin is an exploration of physical identity through extremes. It stars an alien and that alien is played by a woman who, I imagine, often feels incredibly alienated both by the world around her and even her own body. How much purchase can you have over your identity when your image is being Photoshopped and torn apart by others every day?
THE FEMALE ACT III
When The Female takes the Deformed Man back to its lair, a few notable things happen that make this interaction very different from the ones that came before. For one, The Female appears naked for the first time since its first introduction. We also see a glimpse of what the alien looks like without the false skin.
And, of course, The Female ultimately releases the Deformed Man, thus putting its own life into peril. There's a scene here when The Female gazes into a mirror and for the first time understands what others see in that image and also truly identifies with the skin it is in. The Female, in that moment, discovers human identity through a shared empathy between itself and the Deformed Man. And in a way, I think that is when The Female effectively becomes the woman whose skin she is wearing. Because she is beginning to realize what that identity can mean and, likewise, understands what a deformity could mean for someone else.
IDENTITY CHOSEN AND UNCHOSEN
Under the Skin is not a happy movie. It is a movie that, at its core, is about the risks that come of being a female-presenting individual on the planet Earth.
And so, after running to the country, shacking up briefly with a kind man and realizing just how vulnerable she is by way of sexual penetration, The Female seeks solace in the woods to understand who she is and what is next.
Trigger Warning: Rape and murder is what is next. And what we get here is a fascinating narrative -- life and the dangers of having an identity that is more complex than what the surface suggests.
The Female wants simply to be alone with her thoughts at the climax of Under the Skin but is awakened by a man who's in the process of committing sexual violence upon her. In the process, he tears away some of the human skin to reveal the inky, alien blackness beneath.
And as The Female removes its skin and stares at the face it has worn for the entire movie, that face cries because the alien's eyes cannot. And then the rapist douses The Female in gasoline and burns it to death.
Have you ever heard of the trans panic defense? It's an argument used in court cases when a man murders a trans woman because he didn't realize she was trans and panicked in the moment out of extreme homophobic shame. Murderers have been set free by using such a defense. And that's not to even touch mixed race people who have lost work and been met with violence because their "impurity" was discovered.
What do we do to survive in a world that seems bent upon denying innate identity through hyper-analyzing, control or even destruction? How does one prove and understand their own innate, unchosen identity when there are those whose chosen identity is partly used to erase identities they cannot understand? Those are the questions Under the Skin asks as it explores human experience through the lens of an alien. And they're good questions, ones that are our very purpose as human beings to explore with whatever time we have.