Inciting Incident: In a white mass, Isserly (the Alien), discovers a weeping woman.
She’s learned human language through lingual prying. At the moment Isserly is born into human skin, she’s sent on a mission to seduce men and harvest what’s in them. She removes the clothes of an incapacitated woman to take on her identity, watches her cry. This is her first interaction with human emotion, an abstract that she’ll long for.
Threshold: Isserly seduces her first victim.
The threshold is broken by a decision, usually leading the protagonist to their want, or in conflict with their critical flaw. Under the Skin forces that narrative down. After Isserly makes a definitive motion against a nascent human longing, the narrative continues straight into the second act.
She’s made a choice, and it pursues her from there.
Midpoint: A disfigured man draws empathy from Isserly. She lets him free, and flees.
We don’t ever see what’s going in the Alien’s head. We could imagine it’s collateral sound. A long ring, fly buzzing, all layered over a steady emotional swell that grows as the story progresses.
She’s easily overstimulated. We watch her succumb to a crowd of women looking to throw her into their good time – a Scottish nightclub strobed in colors. We see her reel at the taste of a chocolate cherry cake. By the end of the film, hauled in a log cabin. We watch as the Alien dreams, a crown of trees just under her curled sleeping form.
It’s synesthesia. Hyper touch. It walls her from the human experience. So when she sees a disfigured man who shops out of sight at midnight hour, you have to get a sense that she sees herself. And that’s why she lets him go.
It’s a false victory. Not by her virtue, but by her body’s misgiving. She’s sparked human empathy, but doesn’t understand it.
Low Point: Isserly realizes she cannot have sex.
She’s run away from her captors and there’s an aura behind her eyes that disconnects. We watch her, completely blank eyed on the bus. This is the Alien’s true form without a script to play off of. No –
“Do you have a girlfriend?”
“Would you like a ride?”
“Do you think I’m pretty?”
She’s put herself in a vulnerable space, recognizing that she has a human body. Her own body.
Isserly falls in love with a man that gives her shelter, but at the moment of intimacy, realizes she physically cannot have sex with him. It’s not a stretch to call Under the Skin a corporeal obsessed film – that a character’s critical flaw is not themselves, but in the expectations of their body. Even their own expectations.
Climax: Isserly recognizes the mask of her human skin after she’s assaulted.
The climax is a confrontation with the question, which Under the Skin asks, “Can I be human?” Hard to imagine what could be a more definitive no. Holding a flap of bare skin, watching as its eyes blink on their own. The sight of what was possibly forgotten, her thin, dark, and completely inhuman form.
Resolution: Isserly is set on fire, and burns in the forest.
The man who assaults Isserly is convicted by fear to destroy. There’s a lot that goes into this, as even at the start - her journey to humanity was bleak. It seems that there was a perfect failsafe devised by her superiors. If she grew human empathy, they would pursue her. If she escaped, they gave her a body incompatible with humanity. Even if someone loved her, it wouldn’t be enough.
Under the Skin has a strange first act. There’s a lot of waiting around in film after the call to adventure comes; a lot of ‘refusal of the call.’ But not in this film. It treats Isserly’s denial of the call as a monumental happening, and continues with the story. That’s important. It makes the midpoint so much more tragic, that maybe she discovered herself just too late.
I chose to remove the nature of the ‘ant,’ in the inciting incident, which is believed to be Issery’s first contact with living earth life, which connects symbolically to the fly in the window, meaning “I’m trapped.” It didn’t sit well.
When Isserly was in that white space, it felt like god contact. A mutual extraterrestrial touch. That was much more important to keep as the inciting incident.