With Kubrick and Cocteau in its DNA, Under the Skin stars Scarlett Johansson as the man-eater who fell to Earth.

By Christos Tsiolkas.

Scarlett Johansson’s loving the alien in Under the Skin

Johansson as the predatory alien in Jonathan Glazer’s latest film.
Johansson as the predatory alien in Jonathan Glazer’s latest film.

In Spike Jonze’s science-fiction film Her, Scarlett Johansson played an operating system, creating a richly textured performance through voice alone. In Jonathan Glazer’s new film, Under the Skin, she again plays a non-human, this time an alien come to earth whose hunting grounds are in Glasgow and the foothills of the Scottish Highlands.

Her offered us a benign Orwellian version of our near future, a bureaucratic corporate utopia that suggested no matter the symbiosis between humans and artificial intelligence, our basic human consciousness would remain untouched, even if the machines were to become more intelligent than we were. Glazer’s vision, however, is much darker.

Under the Skin is filmed almost entirely in sombre winter light, and it is one of the achievements of the film that very quickly it places us in the position of the aliens: we come to see the city through the eyes of an extraterrestrial. For the first half-hour, Johansson is largely shot behind the wheel of a van, the intimate interior suggestive of a space capsule. In an audacious reversal of the traditional cinematic point of view, it is she who is predatory; it is her gaze that sweeps across men, sizing them up; it is her lust, her hunger, that we are to identify with. And it’s largely men who are her prey. The world we glimpse outside the van windows is familiar – strip malls, high streets, empty suburban estates – but the camera’s dispassionate gaze, along with the disquieting atonal score by Mica Levi, make it all seem strange and threatening. There is one early scene where the alien leaves her van and is in daylight. She watches a couple drown in savage seas and her only response is to attack and feed on the man who had swum out unsuccessfully to save them. In the background a baby is crying but Johansson’s alien is oblivious to the infant’s howls and distress. Humans, at this point of the film, are inconsequential life forms, the child’s cries no different to the squalls of gulls on a beach.

The film’s opening is a direct homage to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, a birthing of the alien that visually and aurally nods towards that film’s final sequence, “beyond the infinite”. And that first half-hour of Under the Skin partakes in Kubrick’s cold, detached overview of the human species. But then, in her hunger, Johansson picks up a young man, played by Adam Pearson, who has neurofibromatosis, the condition suffered by Joseph Merrick, the so-called Elephant Man. Though she lures him into her hunting ground, the man’s loneliness and vulnerability is evident and she has a sense of his suffering under his skin. She makes a decision to let him live. This decision seals her fate: she now becomes the hunted, pursued by her own kind.

If Kubrick’s shadow looms large over the first part of the film, the moment of the alien’s empathy also suggests the influence of another filmmaker. Johansson is brunette in this film, not blonde, and a guard of motorcycling aliens accompanies her, as they did María Casares, the avenging figure of death in Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus. The world into which she draws her prey is also suggestive of that great work, and just as in Cocteau’s film, mirrors and reflections are the portals between life and death, between the alien and the human experience. 

Rebirth and the shedding of skin, the desire to change one’s world and to oppose fate, have been consistent themes throughout Glazer’s work. In Sexy Beast, a cockney ex-con, played by Ray Winstone, believes he can remake his life anew in the splendid light of southern Spain. In Birth, Nicole Kidman’s grieving widow believes she has met the reincarnation of her dead partner in the body of a pre-adolescent boy. Just as in those earlier works, Under the Skin intimates that the search for spiritual or emotional renewal is doomed by the presence of death. The alien resists her temptation to feed on human life, but this results in her own body beginning to decay and to betray her.

Glazer has a remarkable skill for making landscape vivid. The work of cinematographer, Daniel Landin, is exemplary – much of it shot documentary style – especially the movement of the alien through Glasgow; but I have no doubt of the centrality of Glazer’s conception for the stark and brutal look of the film. I can still recall the sun-bleached vistas of Sexy Beast and the chilly, autumnal interiors of Birth’s Manhattan. The desolate urban streets and the bleak Highland terrain of Scotland are equally haunting in Under the Skin. There is a danger in such a compelling mastery of atmosphere: it can overwhelm the narrative, forcing us to create links and story that might not be there in the first place. In the Michel Faber novel on which this film is based, the analogy between the alien’s view of humans and our own disregard for the animal world was more clearly expressed. Glazer’s film, as much about how we look at others as it is how we comprehend the other, is more elliptical. I don’t mind filling in the gaps, but I can understand that for some viewers the film might seem claustrophobic. 

Wretched and frightened, the alien is less compelling than when she is the avenging figure of death. I think we also miss the strange dreamlike world of her hunting ground. The film threatens to become listless but it is saved by Johansson’s consistent and dedicated performance. Hunter or hunted, she never resorts to being merely human. She uses the magnetism of her screen and public persona, our knowledge of her celebrity, to cement the sense of an otherworldly creature moving among ordinary women and men. But she never steps out of character. Her eyes, the one part of the body not under the skin, remain alien throughout.

In the inventive and charming Her, poverty and statelessness were invisible. In Jonze’s vision of the future, the proles of Nineteen Eighty-Four and the Epsilons of Brave New World were nowhere to be seen. Glazer’s vision is much more searing and the human life we see is paranoid and enervated. It is the alien’s tragedy that she finds compassion for our species at the moment when we are possibly least deserving of it. This is a dystopian world and it is no accident that the film’s tragic final act is prefigured by an instance of ugly, almost banal, human violence.

Earlier in Under the Skin, when she is still feeding on us, the men enter the alien Hades by stripping off their clothes, becoming naked, their cocks fully erect. Procreation, life, is always shadowed by death. Trapped in the watery dark underworld, their bodies go limp, the flesh and bones collapse and they become ashen vapour. In the one glorious moment of warm colour in the film, just before the end, there is a burst of brilliant orange flame. Then the film’s palette returns to grey. It is just one brief moment of radiance but I think Glazer is saying, That’s maybe all we have in this life, that brief moment of love or care or inspiration; we should seize it.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 14, 2014 as "Loving the alien".

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Christos Tsiolkas is the author of The Slap, Barracuda and Damascus. He is The Saturday Paper’s film critic.

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