Under the Skin: What Does it Mean to Be Human?

Under the Skin - 1

Watching Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, I kept thinking of Seth Brundle in David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986), slowly mutating into a humanoid fly, marking the loss of his humanity with the chilling observation: “I’m an insect who dreamt he was a man and loved it. But now the dream is over… and the insect is awake.” The first half of Under the Skin, Glazer’s third film in an un-prolific but distinctive career, follows Laura (Scarlett Johansson), an alien disguised as a human woman as she wanders Scotland in a van, picking up men to lure to an apartment and, as hinted by an unforgettable sequence from the point-of-view of one of her victims, divest of their skins (for other aliens to wear?). Looking at Earth and its humans through Laura, the film feels like the dream of an alien who dreamed she was human. The second half of the film, which sees Laura suddenly abandoning her mission, feels like the dream is over. The human (woman) is awake–only to find, with something akin to fear, that humans make aliens of their own kind. The whole thing feels like a gorgeous nightmare—the kind where dysphoria is made all the stronger by moments of overwhelming beauty. We don’t know where Laura or her kind is from, what they want, why they’re harvesting human men. Which makes Laura’s eventually developing fear–the only plainly decipherable emotion she expresses in the film–at the stirrings of human experience all the more disturbing, and discordantly poignant.

Laura’s discovery isn’t a sentimental or emotional one. It’s entirely sensory and experiential, like the film. There’s no exposition here, no speeches or conversations detailing what she’s feeling. Laura wakes to the experience of being a human woman, not understanding it. Indeed, if she discovers anything it’s that human existence is no different than that of the ant she observes crawling over a human body early in the film–scrabbling, by instinct, to fulfil the demands of its insignificant existence in a vast universe. But we see Laura as insectile too, because of how unknowable and predatory she is (we glimpse another of her kind as well, a male biker who travels around clearing evidence of Laura’s kidnappings), despite her species’ clear level of technological advancement over ours.

All of which makes Under the Skin act as a twisted two-way mirror, on either side of which human and alien look at each other, discovering that they’re different insects trapped in the same unfathomable hive. We’re all just meat animated by the spark of the cosmos, pretending to know what’s going on. The anti-human certainty of Laura’s purpose when we first see her (methodically imitating and hunting humans, though the rest of her motives remain mysterious) deteriorates into existential uncertainty as she bears witness to a universe that’s amoral—though not evil in the way the fleshed cruelty of the sentient can be.