Under the Skin

A friend of mine once described an eerie noise as being “like a spaceship landing.” Of course no one — really — knows what a spaceship landing sounds like. But not-really, everyone does know. Spaceships and the aliens who arrive on them are now such familiar parts of our culture, mainly through their representation in the movies, that no one anymore has to bother to make such creatures from another planet appear, as they once were expected to appear, “incredible.” Now they are all too credible to a movie audience raised on such fantasy. We are so used through mere repetition — and through living a greater portion of our lives than ever before in the fantasy-land of popular entertainment — to finding them credible that one may even find oneself occasionally criticizing the latest manifestations of their presence among us for being less than entirely realistic.

One of the things that, going back to H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds in the 1890s, we used to take for granted about these wholly mythical creatures we have learned to call “aliens” is that they were warlike and hostile to human-kind. Steven Spielberg, following on from The Day the Earth Stood Still of 1953, began with Close Encounters of the Third Kind and the immortally awful E.T., to explore the alternative theory that they might be friendly or else sent from a higher civilization to warn us to mend our ways. But that kind of thinking always smacks of preachy do-goodism, or else turns the aliens into talking pets, like E.T., and it is therefore much less exciting on screen than hostile forces arriving from other planets to subjugate, enslave or destroy us. Another plus of the latter scenario is that you can get the uplift anyway, by having a divided earth unite to expel the invaders, as in Independence Day.

I mention this potted history because both kinds of alien movies are essentially juvenile — like most movies of all kinds these days — in the attention they give to plainly fantastical hardware and purportedly interstellar grotesques. Yet there is also a third and, I think, the best type of science fiction which more or less ignores the meretricious fantasy for the sake of a metaphorical attention to life on this earth as we know it. Such a movie is Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, in which Scarlett Johansson plays an alien in human disguise — a Scarlett Johansson disguise, sensibly enough — in order to entrap lonely, sex-starved human beings for purposes that are not entirely clear, even when we witness what happens to one of her/its victims.

In the novel by Michel Faber which Mr Glazer and Walter Campbell have adapted for the screen, she is supposedly collecting meaty human specimens for shipment back to her home planet as expensive comestibles. In the movie, however, her purpose is more obscure and therefore becomes just one more example — along with where she/it comes from, how she/it got here, the nature of the black goo in which her/its victims are drowned and who or what may be the guy on the motorcycle who appears to be her/its helper, among others — of a mystery that is helpfully left unexplained, thus allowing the film to focus on its much more interestingly metaphorical purposes.

The metaphor is inevitably that of seduction and the price we men are prepared to pay for the beauty that flatters us with the illusion that it may be possessed. This may be an updating of Keats’s poem La Belle Dame Sans Merci, which itself drew upon a long history of literary associations between sex and death — all of them, like so much of the rest of literary history, from the masculine point of view. Mr Glazer’s innovation, which is more in keeping with movie culture, is to present the same phenomenon from the female predator’s point of view. It’s true that Miss Johansson is meant to be only the possessor of a human female disguise, her “real” sex, if any, being left to the imagination, but there is a marvelous scene near the end of the movie in which we see her admiring her own body in a mirror as if it belonged to someone else (as of course it is supposed to do) — as if her powers of seduction were such as to leap the species and planetary barriers to act even upon herself.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Under the Skin is that it is set in Glasgow, Scotland, where seemingly everybody is an alien, and uses actual civilians — lonely men off the street who unsurprisingly allow themselves to be picked up by this Scarlett Johansson impersonator who happens to be Scarlett Johansson. They are then filmed by hidden cameras in the big white van which the actual Scarlett Johansson is driving around the city. In each case, she quizzes them as to whether they have a girlfriend or family and if they live alone. In the first few pickups, she sets the men back down again as unsuitable for one reason or another, but eventually we get to see two or three of them given the black goo treatment, plus some others who, equally inexplicably, do not but may or may not end up dead anyway.

The presumably improvised but altogether uninspiring candid camera seduction talk between her and these men in the universal pop-cultural vernacular accounts for almost all the dialogue in the movie, while the muddy-looking photography must also have been by design — both to carry through the hidden camera effect and to make much of the film look like a low-budget porno. This alien has clearly got our number, guys, which is ultimately what makes her more than usually believable when she finally reveals herself to us in what is meant to be her true appearance. It also makes more believable the surprise ending. At least it is a surprise given our expectations born of watching too many science fiction movies. This one’s ending suddenly seems right and entirely appropriate to the rest of the film, however, so it will not be revealed here.

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