Jonathan Glazer’s third film Under The Skin is something of a puzzle. Loosely based on a novel by Michel Faber, the film concerns itself with an alien who poses as a human woman (Scarlett Johansson) in order to lure single men to a strange alien space. Once trapped in the space, the men are absorbed by a black liquid that keeps them alive until the time comes for their flesh and organs to be harvested. However, the more time the alien spends in the company of humans, the more she is forced to refine her seduction techniques and this process of refinement seems to alienate her from her function.
Most (positive) reviews of the film praise Glazer’s visual panache and speculate that the film is concerned with human empathy and the process of becoming human. While I don’t disagree with this assessment, I do think it short-changes what is a very clever and unsettling film. The truth is that Glazer does not give his audience very much to work with when it comes to working out what the film is about and therein lies the point that the film is trying to get across.
The film’s opening act is dominated by three incredibly powerful images:
The first is an image of the alien’s birth that recalls the trippy bits from both Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 and Robert Wise’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Ably supported by Mica Levi’s strident and corrosive score, this section positively screams ‘Science Fiction’ just not the shitty kind with gun-toting raccoons and face-punching robots.
The second is an image of the alien luring men into a weird trans-dimensional space. Ostensibly a darkened house, the space is a little bit too dark to be real and the eagerly stripping bodies are a little too well lit despite a complete lack of lighting sources. Surreal and horrific, the scene plays with images of desire and egocentric lust but once the dark liquid grabs the men and sucks them down, the alien’s face goes blank. That enticing smile discarded like a used condom.
The third is the image of Scarlett Johansson driving a white van around a nameless Scottish city in search of victims. Reportedly shot using a number of hidden cameras and featuring men who were not aware that they were being filmed, the images recall countless iterations of the serial killer genre. The hidden cameras reminding us of the way that the audience always knows what the victims do not: The person driving the van is an inhuman monster.
These images are almost more important than the details of the plot as Under The Skin is a film that operates almost entirely by image. Dialogue is limited to a few scattered lines and nobody ever bothers to explain either themselves or the events to which we are witness.
What the images tell us is that a group of aliens are preying on humanity. Clever and well organised, they pass themselves off as human (a beautiful woman and the motorcycle rider who protects/controls her) and have a network of safe houses that allow them to capture, store and harvest human bodies.
Initially, the woman comes across as a psychopathic predator who apes human kindness in order to snare isolated men. However, while on a Scottish beach, the woman talks to a man from the Czech Republic who is willing to risk his life in order to save a struggling swimmer despite having no ties to the woman or her community. Visibly puzzled and disconcerted by this display of selflessness, the woman harvests the man and goes about her business until she encounters another man whose isolation is a result of disfigurement. Faced with a potential victim who is completely passive (unlike her usual victims who are desperately trying to seduce her), the alien is forced to dig deeper, to be more humane in her seduction and this more nuanced portrait of humanity seems to leave her forever changed.
Glazer captures this moment of transformation by revisiting the eye-ball motif from the birth of the alien and juxtaposing it with images of people on a night out. When the alien was born, it was alone in the darkness. Now it is forced to content with human feelings, emotions that literally carry her along and take her to places she does not want to go.
Suddenly alienated from her mission, the alien allows the disfigured man to escape and goes on the run in an effort to escape the motorcycle rider. Her true identity and purpose denied, the woman winds up wandering around the Scottish highlands until an isolated man decides to take her in and relates to her as a real human being. This relationship has a real frisson of humanity but the woman soon realises that while she may be able to pass for human, she cannot do everything that humans do.
Under The Skin is a puzzle because while Glazer does an excellent job of crafting images that invoke powerful concepts like desire, empathy and understanding one’s place in the world, he refuses to pull these images together into a coherent shape. Much like its near contemporary Upstream Color, Under The Skin reminds us that the language of art house film tends to struggle whenever a director steps away from the usual palate of bourgeois concerns. Had Under The Skin been a film all about a middle-class alien who feels unaccountably sad despite being surrounded by people who love her then Under The Skin would have been as transparent as a Caribbean sea. However, given that Glazer has clearly decided to push the boat out and ask some unusual questions, audiences are forced to work a little bit harder for their pay-off.
Under The Skin is a film so beautifully composed and carefully made that its lack of obvious thematic shape should probably be taken as a deliberate part of the message. Rather than simply assuming that this is a film about an alien learning to be human, it is worth pausing to consider how the virus of humanity comes to infect the woman in the first place.
Initially, the alien limits herself to preying on men with absolutely no attachments to the world around them. Despite being able to abduct these men and dispose of their bodies instantly and without trace, the alien interviews potential victims to make sure that they have no family, no relationships and no jobs. This raises an interesting question: Does the alien take these excessive precautions because she is afraid of getting caught, or because she is afraid of becoming emotionally entangled?
The alien’s behaviour only starts to change when she begins to prey on men who display a genuine attachment to the people and places that surround them. Incapable of ‘passing’ as human in the eyes of these more humane men, the alien is forced to work harder to emulate basic human empathy and thereby winds up being infected by the same emotions as the men she is trying to seduce.
The philosopher Judith Butler once argued that, far from being an expression of real psychological differences between the sexes, gender is actually a construct that is created and maintained through social means. As she explains in Gender Trouble:
The tacit collective agreement to perform, produce, and sustain discrete and polar genders as cultural fictions is obscured by the credibility of those productions – and the punishments that attend not agreeing to believe in them.
While gender performance and transsexuality are certainly relevant to a film about an alien trying to ‘pass’ as a human woman, I am more interested in the question of what other human characteristics might also be sustained cultural artefacts.
Studies suggest that children as young as two have an instinct to comfort other children who are in pain. It is around this same time that children begin playing games in which they ‘pretend’ to possess a particular mental state in an effort to fool their playmates. Neuro-scientists also suggest that, upon seeing others in pain, people will activate the parts of their brain devoted to processing their own pain. In other words, learning how to feel empathy for another person is part and parcel with the process of learning to how to pretend and manipulate. Much like gender, empathy is a theatrical performance so carefully rehearsed that we often mistake it for a genuine ability to feel another person’s pain. Maybe an inability to feel empathy for other people is not so much a psychopathology as a refusal to become involved in a grand theatrical production in which the true nature of humanity is concealed beneath a useful cultural artefact?
Under The Skin is a difficult film to read precisely because it sets out to confound out empathic abilities. We may watch the alien hunt, kill and show mercy but we have no real inkling of the psychological forces that propel her along this journey. The truth is that we are just as cut off from the alien as we are from each other; the true power of this film lies in the decision to remind us of this fact rather than partake in the usual theatre of human concern.