‘Under the Skin’ Ending Explained: Becoming More Human and the Dark Side of Mankind
Jonathan Glazer's dark sci-fi tale ends with a shocking conclusion that will stick with the viewer long after the film is over.
Jonathan Glazer’s return to filmmaking was highly anticipated. His first two films Sexy Beast and Birth were widely acclaimed, but it took nearly a decade for Glazer to complete another project. He developed Under the Skin for almost a decade before debuting it at the Telluride Film Festival in 2013. Under the Skin was widely celebrated by film critics and ardent science fiction fans, but general audiences seemed to be baffled by the surrealist body horror story.
It’s hardly the first time that a brilliant, challenging arthouse film was met with contempt from general audiences, with films like Killing Them Softly, Solaris, The Box, and mother! having earned F Cinemascores. With all that being said, Under the Skin can be a difficult text to decipher after only one viewing. It may take subsequent rewatches to fully digest the metaphorical, psychological, and literal implications of the film’s alien encounter story. As the title suggests, there’s something beneath the surface that isn’t initially evident.
Under the Skin follows a nameless alien creature that takes on the appearance of a human woman (Scarlett Johansson). Over the course of the film, the extraterrestrial visitor travels the streets of Glasgow, Scotland, and seduces young men. Johansson takes each man and lures them into a black liquid void until they are submerged and killed. In order to maximize the realism of the story, Glazer had Johansson interact with non-actors, whose unscripted performances were captured using hidden cameras.
The film’s conclusion may come as a surprise, but the clues to what Johansson’s character represents were sprinkled throughout the film. Under the Skin shows how this mysterious alien slowly begins to understand human psychology through her experiences and interactions. Her specific perspective is that of an immigrant, and a woman. She faces xenophobia, toxic masculinity, and cultural resistance, and begins to understand the darker side of humanity. This underlying darkness is best exemplified in the shocking final moments. Here is the ending of Under the Skin, explained in full spoiler detail.
After luring many men into the dark abyss, Johansson’s character begins to develop an identity. She’s aware of her body, and begins to take ownership of her choices. After seducing a logger (Dave Acton), Johansson resists his sexual advances. She doesn’t fully understand his frustration. When she wakes up in his cabin, the logger begins assaulting her. The frightened alien is terrified by his capacity for cruelty, and runs into the woods. The logger chases after her.
It’s clear that the Johansson character has started to identify with her human body. She has seen the positive things that humanity is capable of after she rescues an abandoned baby on the beach, and has a pleasant experience at the cinema. Her empathy makes the exploration of rape culture even more shocking. Glazer makes both characters’ violent behavior completely distinct; Johansson is luring men to their deaths because she’s confused and trying to learn, but the logger is attacking her out of selfishness and hatred.
The logger chases her through the woods and tackles Johansson’s character. As he tries to rip at her skin, he peels away the alien’s human skin. Her body underneath is the same dark, liquid void that was seen during the seduction sequences. This is her true alien body, and the logger is terrified by what he can’t understand. He pours fuel on top of her body and burns her alive. While the primary theme of the film is rape culture, the ending can also be seen as a commentary on xenophobia. The barrier in communication causes the xenophobic man to lash out in fear.
It’s implied that in the context of the story, the alien creature is not completely destroyed. In all likelihood, the alien will take a new form as it inhabits a different body, and has a completely different experience. During the opening sequence, the space-bound entity was seen coming to Earth. It’s unclear whether its intent was to travel to other planets, or stay on Earth. It’s also unclear if there are any other extraterrestrial creatures that may be exploring other parts of the world.
Glazer hasn’t discussed the ending in detail, but he did tell RogerEbert.com that Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris were among his primary inspirations. Although he doesn’t consider Under the Skin to be a traditional science fiction film, but used the alien storyline as “a starting point for this rather than working within the borders of the genre.” Glazer also revealed that he hadn’t read the original novel of the same name by Michel Faber, so the source material is unlikely to clear anything up.
Johansson described the entire film as “surreal” in an interview with The Guardian. I didn’t know how to react to it,” she said. “I wouldn’t say disturbed, but I was sort of shocked.” She compared the film’s divisive reactions to her experience watching Eyes Wide Shut. Johansson said that she saw Kubrick’s final film three times, and the audience reacted in very different ways at each screening. She said that the premiere of Under the Skin was met with “boos and cheers.”