What would you look like to an alien? Probably an irrational sack of meat. (Certainly you would look that way to Scarlett Johannson.) It’s an often asked question, and that answer is strangely comforting. In part because it’s clearly untrue: we have thoughts, we are people, the obsession with thinking about ourselves as bags of brawn helps us realise that we’re not. But Under The Skin isn’t interested in the vague humanism that characterises so many of our aliens: for once, the extraterrestrials have arrived to show the worst of humanity, and there’s no consolation to be found.
I had an odd experience when I went to watch the film, which is about an alien (Scarlett Johansson) sent to harvest the bodies of men by seducing them into what they believe to be her house. The mistrust and suspicion that made me feel continued throughout; it’s a piece of cinema that doesn’t believe in people. There are long, lingering shots of Glasgow revellers; cinema more akin to those brash documentaries about cops cleaning up our Saturday night streets than anything else. Like in those, the supposedly disinterested, sterile eye of the camera renders clubbers weird and ugly.
The expansive shots of the Scottish countryside could easily become sublimely, unthreateningly beautiful. But Mica Levi’s soundtrack of screaming strings renders them flat and unyielding, resistant to humans. Nature, unlike the human body, doesn’t have recourse to the sort of alien humanism that we do — it can’t tell itself stories. And so nature is what it is, throughout the film, and is beautiful for it. There are tremendous sweeping shots of the Scottish countryside — rendered alien by such careful attention — and as man gets uglier and uglier, the nature shots become longer and more beautiful. At one point Johansson tries and fails to eat a cake that looks like a cliff face; she can’t, because unlike nature the cake is trying to be something else (food, energy).
Aliens allow us to tell ourselves things that we’d normally be far too embarrassed to say. Doctor Who, for example, is just the most clear example of a whole roster of self-affirming aliens: humanity has the power to save itself with humble things like storytelling and love. (Doctor Who is likely that way because he’s written by Steven Moffat, who is obsessed with mollycoddling the whole human race.)
Nobody comes out of Under The Skin well. When they try to be good, they fail. A man tries to save his wife, who is struggling in the sea, but he begins to drown; another man tries to save the drowning man; the drowning man dies and the would-be saviour is killed too. The drowned man leaves a baby behind who is taken away, never to be seen again, by Johansson’s extraterrestrial handler. Human life is futile, and drags others’ lives down with it.
Johansson’s character does her thing by being so nihilistically in touch with the flaws of human existence — men’s lust, men’s loneliness. (Those men are real, and so is their lust and loneliness.) At one point the film goads us into thinking that we’re going to be saved, Moffat style, by the care of another, good, man. But again all hopes are dashed.
At one point, two of the men that Johansson has lured to be harvested meet each other in the pickling goo that she drags them down into. They perform a kind of cosmic bath-ballet before their bodies are emptied out of their innards and the deflated balloon of their skin is hoovered up. It is beautiful; the only kind of beauty in man is when his guts are hoovered out and he is placed in preserving gunk.
There are shades of Kubrick, here, when what seems to be their insides stream down a basin and away into the ether. The film has a Kubrickian view of space, and a 2001-esque realisation of it: when Johansson emerges from it, at the beginning of the film, apparently testing out her new mouth with sounds, there are shots of huge aligning space geometries. (There’s bits of The Tree Of Life in there, too: grand images as a means of transcendence.) Later there are beautiful and abstract shots of colours, which seem to be a possible view of life in space. Like in Kubrick, space offers a kind of escape from humanity. Like in Kubrick, that escape is always false and falls through pretty quickly.
Pretending that we’re not of earth can be comforting. “Only the dog or the horse would be in a position to pronounce a general judgment upon man and declare that he is magnificent,” says Sartre. (But we might not be able to understand what it said.) But an alien could, too, tell us how great we are from the outside, and we like that.
Our aliens can cuddle us and encourage our most grandiloquent and self-aggrandising thoughts about ourselves. But they can also — as they do in Under The Skin — lay us bare, let us watch ourselves from afar. There’s little solace in what we see.