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

Under the Skin - 2

In Glazer’s cold, Kubrick-esque visualizations of the aliens’ habitats, there’s a sense of sci-fi writer Stanislaw Lem’s assertion that humans would never be able to adequately communicate with or understand intelligent extraterrestrial life if we met any. One implicit read of Lem’s belief being that we can’t even understand our own species and how best to fit into our planet and its ecosystem, let alone initiate a universe-wide dialogue with other life.

In Under the Skin, Lem’s idea is cannily expressed through a sentient alien’s inability to understand or communicate with us (even though she can look and speak like us). Glazer, cinematographer Daniel Landlin and editor Paul Watts convey the weather and rugged landscapes of Scotland like a gorgeous wind-and-rain-swept alien planet. Laura often dissolves into the terrain or overlapping footage of crowds, a foreign body slowly integrating into a vast ecosystem that humans are only half-conscious of being a part of, like insects turned voracious with their own self-awareness (in a late scene that sees Laura at her most powerless, she happens upon a truck that is being loaded with logs in a pristine forest, and this human machinery is framed as significantly menacing). Mica Levi’s eerie score feels like a living thing, the voice and heartbeat of the alien beneath Laura as she becomes, in a way, self-aware, or aware of how humans perceive themselves—as hopelessly different from each other (and from the ecosystem that sprung them). The film lingers on this cruelty of othering by phenotype, which can make Laura’s discovery of it hard to watch.

Laura’s journey is thus defined by the lines human draw around each other using gender, sex and physical appearance. The men she picks up in the first half of the film–which feels like an extraterrestrial ethnography of a small sampling of human males–are a mix of actors and random pedestrians caught on hidden cameras, making the proceedings fraught with a sense of danger (though none of them are overtly hostile) and peculiar verisimilitude. The technique makes Laura’s ensnaring of human prey seem authentic, as if Glazer were an extraterrestrial filmmaker himself.

In these scenes, we fear for Johansson in real life, because of the familiar human narrative of a woman without company (i.e. ‘protection’) immediately being assigned the status of willing sex object by a misogynistic cultural consensus (almost always, the men who get in the van talk about her eyes, her lips, how gorgeous she is, without ever asking her anything about herself). In the dream-life of the film, however, we fear what these men might see behind Laura’s human facade. We fear that the alien behind Laura will punish these men for seeing only her flesh, and thus punish humanity (and, by association, us) for its primitive behaviour. But what do the men see behind Laura’s blank, insect-like gaze? Nothing–it doesn’t matter, because her skin and flesh, her sexual potential, is all that matters. To them, she’s all surface (not to demonize the real non-actors here, who were clearly directed after a point, and framed within a meticulous narrative).The film finds a burrowing horror in Laura’s discovery that a ‘beautiful’ human woman is not quite human to her own kind: she is made succubus or goddess, a symbol/idol to be fucked or worshipped. Even when Laura’s lured men are being trapped in the dark liquid void inside her lair, wading towards her as she undresses out of their reach, they seem unaware of any danger, blissfully fixated on her form.