[7 April 2014]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
If it’s hard to be the girl in Marvel’s universe, it’s nearly impossible to be Scarlett Johansson, at least this version of Scarlett Johansson. This much is apparent in Under the Skin, Jonathan Gazer’s edgily poetic remix of Michael Faber’s novel, where she plays an unnamed alien come to Earth.
The alien first takes shape on screen as light and sound, a series of flashes that turn into an iris and pupil, and bits of recorded noise that’s soon recognizable as words running backwards. To inhabit Earth, the alien needs form, and skin, too, and so the film, per its title, proceeds to ponder this idea, as metaphor and abjection. The alien is provided with a dead girl, whose clothes she takes off and then puts on her own body, Johansson’s face shadowed and removed during much of this process, so that you ponder what it can mean in a movie for one naked female to undress another, such that the second is left naked.
The possible meanings expand exponentially as you watch: is such nakedness a sign of vulnerability, as you might typically assume? A sign of appeal or seduction, or maybe clinical coldness, as in a corpse? When at last the scene cuts on the alien looking closely (that is, in a close-up provided for you), at an ant she’s found on the dead girl’s torso, you might rethink nakedness again and altogether. What do clothes do, anyway?
This question is addressed, somewhat, in a next scene, when the alien heads from a dark and creepily isolated house in suburban Scotland to a mall, the camera close on the back of her head as she rides the escalator down, down into fluorescent havoc. Here, she enters stores to buy a faux fur jacket, skinny jeans, and red-red lipstick. If you’re human, the crowds and the noises and the light in this sequence are all comprehensible, or at least familiar. But if not, these sensations are just that, effects of being in skin, being physical and conscious. They’re also difficult to convey on a movie screen, and Under the Skin makes sure you know why.
In part, again, this difficulty has to do with skin, with the physicality skin makes possible. Skin doesn’t make you sensitive or good or even human, it only makes you feel, physically. Just so, the alien, whose skin is not like yours, doesn’t feel like you do. That is the sensation the film evokes, this utter difference, what you can’t know.
You know this much, that the alien is sent to Earth, apparently, to seduce men, to lead them into that dark house in the middle of nowhere, to rouse in them excitement (indicated by their visible erections), and then pull them into a dark hole of some sort of sustaining fluid, where they hang until they are sucked up and nothing but their skin remains. She gains access to them as an increasingly anonymous series, driving in a van through the streets, asking for directions to some place or another, picking up cocky football fans with scarves or rugged young men on their ways home from work. As she scans the streets during daylight the camera shows her view, a montage of men and boys walking, waddling, striding, laughing or hurrying, looking back or scrunching into their hoodies.
As the alien repeatedly lures men into the house and into the hole that looks like a shiny floor, each time attended by the same starkly percussive theme (courtesy of composer Mica Levi) it’s unclear whether the skin or the under-the-skin material is what the alien(s) want, whether the alien you see, the Scarlett Johansson version, gets something out of this activity or just performs it for someone or something else, and also whether she has a notion of what she’s doing. When the guy gets into the van, this process seems easy: she asks a few questions about families or girlfriends, then takes them to their doom or does not, depending on their answers.
While you might wonder why she might care whether a victim has a family, you will be aware that these half-scenes form a pattern, leading you to assumptions and dread, no matter how they turn out. These assumptions may be challenged by the handler who keeps track of the alien, who provides her with that initial dead girl wit the clothes and the van to drive around.
This handler is a biker (Jeremy McWilliams), whose helmet reflects lights in traffic and who wears a leather suit and doesn’t speak. The biker—who may be alien or not—leaves the alien to her business, he also does not keep track of whom she takes and what she leaves behind at each scene of abduction. The biker comes round on occasion to clean up after her, ensuring that no one has seen what she’s done.
The most devastating instance of this cleaning up comes after she’s observed a catastrophe on a lakeshore, screaming in fear and loneliness, having lost parents it can’t comprehend it’s lost. She pursues her mission, to drag off an unconscious body to the scary house, maybe. The biker arrives shortly afterwards, to make sure the scene leaves no sign of the alien, and as he does so, pays no attention to the screaming baby. The moment has nothing to do with the film’s plot, but it speaks, without words, to the ways that we live in skin and react to other bodies in skin, the baby’s sensations both unconditional and absolutely legible, no matter what context you might see or guess at.
As the biker leaves the movie for long stretches, the alien becomes the indecipherable means by which you try to decipher what’s in front of you. She spends much of her time looking, from inside the van, from across streets or beaches, from across that scary shiny floor. Like the baby on the shore, the alien is cast into a world she seems not to recognize (even as, again, the film leaves mostly open what she might get or not get). This lack of access to her opens up the movie’s central question, which has to do with point of view. The alien’s view is one thing, but yours, or the movie’s, is something else.
At first, Under the Skin looks as if it’s offering up the alien as a monster, sucking up men out of their skin. And then you might be troubled by another possibility, that what you’re seeing is a distinctly gendered view of her, revealing the fear she inspires because she is, in a word, so alien.
This might occur to you as the film—very briefly, midway—shows the alien in her van on the street looking at women and girls. That this montage is as random-seeming as that of the men raises the question as to whether she is about to suck up some women too, and when she doesn’t, whether it is men only who are useful for the aliens or the alien. And then you realize whose horror story this might be, a story about men’s fears and desire for control, about the alienness of women and in particular, of a woman like Scarlett Johansson, which is to say, Scarlett Johansson, because she is surely unique, in the combination of her beauty and marriages, her performances and promotions of Barack Obama or Woody Allen or SodaStream.
But in being unique, Scarlett Johansson the alien is also representative, standing for something else whether she wants to or not. Indeed, the question of desire is at the center of Under the Skin, but it’s not the alien’s desire. As the movie guesses at her, wants her, is repelled by her, and cannot fathom her, you are left to figure out your own position, under your skin.