Aliens aren’t interesting.
They embarrass us, by exposing the limitations of our imagination.
Because we can only define by what we know, the best we come up with is that they’ve got pointy heads and maybe, like, one weird central eye.
What they can do is help us to re-appraise ourselves.
Now let’s think: in whose body might they do this, such that we’ll be more inclined to pay attention?
What about- ooh, I don’t know- say, Scarlett Johansson’s?
Under The Skin is pure atmospheric cinema (probably better consumed after a floatation tank session than ‘two-fer’ doughballs at Pizza Express, to be fair).
It’s sensory, evocative, elusive, and might just be the answer to Jonathan Glazer’s brain tickler as to how he can spend 3 weeks legitimately holed up with Hollywood’s sexiest starlet without having to make gooseberry jam with a hot leading male in tow.
So what behaviours come to us fresh when filtered through alien eyes?
A surprising number, thanks to the emotional dissonance of this strange creature, experienced as a result of its inhabiting of flesh.
The moment it curiously examines Scarlett’s human face at the close of the film is a crystallization of its painful effort to become a socialized animal on planet earth.
This question of empathy is central to the film, to the human condition.
We wince when it’s lacking (the little boy left on the beach); we relate with sensitivity to the craving to be loved, when it is simulated for ulterior motives (the deformed man); we feel the purity of kindness (the man on the bus), of beauty (the man giving her a tour of the castle); of love’s physical expression (the two of them in bed), when it’s experienced for real.
The cutest part is, it’s even evoked in us on behalf of the creature itself when the tables are eventually turned. We just can’t help ourselves.
When the chips are down, compassion is what separates us from computers, and we could all benefit from pondering that with a cafe creme and a bottle of Bud.
Also trundling into view, is the gulf between experience and interpretation.
Scarlett spends 3/4 of the film silently apprehending, as you would if you had no idea why a group of girly slags were escorting you to a night club.
It’s boring and frustrating for the audience.
Because we want to interpret- for it to mean something.
We’re not used to Directors asking us to listen to windscreen wipers unless the wipers are about to break, or clearing the view for a shot of Adam Sandler mugging for the camera in a Hawaiian shirt.
And we’re not used to doing this in life either. We need a purpose; we want a story.
The fact is, of course, we learn a whole lot more when we experience stuff just as it is.
Conversely, we also do things with little thought at all- like eating black forest gateau, for example.
It’s sweet and it tastes good. So shovel it down! Go on- heart attacks be damned!
Do it slowly and thoughtfully like your wee alien here, meanwhile, and you might come to realise it’s not good for you; it’s going to make you sick.
At a more vital level, we’re presented with the linear, almost childish sex drive of (some) men: ‘You’re pretty. Let’s fuck.’
For these male Scottish victims, it is their carnal instinct that propels them forward. They walk into their fate, literally: upright, full-frontal.
And it’s not ugly.
It’s honest and uncomplicated. It seeks to be sated- nothing more, nothing less.
(Mostly, it takes more than a compliment on her hands to bed a woman: why?)
Aliens are a metaphor for the ‘other’.
They are the foreigners we might fear, the strangers we avoid.
They do more than hold a mirror up to us.
They challenge us to say if we like what we see.