Bioethics, healthcare policy, and related issues.
Once you get on a Scarlett Johansson kick, it’s hard to let go. Real, real hard.
Having just done a review of the godawfully dumb but Scarlett-Johansson-containing Lucy, I can’t overlook the impressively self-contained, intriguing, and record-breakingly-spectacularly Scarlett-Johansson-containing Under the Skin. This I liked. Oh, yes.
Under the Skin is a mesmerisingly slow, subtle, Nouvelle Vague-ish sci-fi film that only clearly identifies itself as such in the last few seconds. We know we’re watching something very strange; things are happening to people that can’t be explained, that shouldn’t be possible. But the explanation – fantasy?, horror? some sort of weird allegory? – doesn’t settle into anything understandable until the end. The viewer is left continually puzzled and unfulfilled until all the previous scenes suddenly come crashing together into a comprehensible narrative, all the dangling clauses closing, all the ambiguous scenes collapsing into a particular interpretation that makes it out to be sci-fi of a not-unfamiliar type, but assembled with such lapidary grace and knife-edge balance that its message, when it reveals itself, hits that much harder and more engagingly.
SPOILER ALERT [Spoilers After the Jump]
Under the Skin opens with a montage of macro- and microscopic images: cells, tissues, the iris of an eye changing from a non-human shape to human, a cascade of images and sounds as if lessons or memories being imparted – somehow something is happening, something is growing and changing, we don’t know what. The movie jumps to an unexplained scene in which a man on a motorcycle pulls off to the side of the road next to an abandoned truck. He walks into an empty field, picks up the lifeless body of Scarlett Johansson, and puts it in the back of the truck along with the bike. Next an empty, blank scene: Scarlett Johansson lying on the ground, dead. Scarlett Johansson walks in from off-screen, peels the clothes off the dead body that looks exactly like her, puts them on herself – rips and tears still in place – and heads off, a new, living simulacrum of her own dead self. What is going on? Who are these women, why do they look the same? Nothing is said.
Scarlett Johansson goes out into the night, engages strangers in conversation. Her speech is halting, stilted; she doesn’t speak English well. One after another, she accosts single men, talking to them to find out about their lives; it becomes apparent that she is seeking men with no attachments, no one waiting for them, no one who knows where they are. The more she talks, the more her speech improves – like a foreigner in a new country, she is learning to mimic the natives, improving her skills. She flirts with the men, using her speech and body to entice them into coming with her; there is little resistance, as you would imagine.
She finds a lone man and takes him home in the truck to her place – a run-down building in an abandoned neighborhood. Whatever you’re imagining, it isn’t what happens. (Though some of what you’re hoping for happens later. This is a good, good movie.) She strip-teases the man into the pitch-black interior of the building; he follows as if hypnotized. She backs up slowly, shedding her coat and outer clothing and dropping them on the black, featureless floor. He trails after her, but as he follows her into the shadows his feet begin sinking into the floor. He just keeps walking. He slowly oozes down into a murky black fluid, some sort of pool of oil or thick brackish water that closes over him as Scarlett Johansson continues walking backward over its surface, without sinking, and the man follows her to his doom. He never seems to notice that he’s submerging into a dark pool; there is a shot of him simply floating there, dazed, motionless. There is no explanation for this. Throughout the movie, in fact, there is hardly any dialogue, and at no point does anyone explain or even remark on the pool of weird black liquid – least of all the men who disappear into it.
“Men,” because of course she does this again. The second man disappears into the black pool, where, creepily, he finds the dissipated corpse of the first man still floating there, transparent and distended like an empty yolk sac. As the second man watches, the empty liquid shell of the first man pops, shreds, and dissolves itself into the murk. Clearly this portends the second man’s fate, but he also makes no effort to struggle or leave.
It becomes apparent that Johansson is systematically luring untraceable men to the building to dissolve them in the black pool. There is no hint as to why, or what happens when they do get dissolved. It is clear she has no regard for these men – indeed no apparent human connections at all. Other than her stilted conversations on picking the men up – and how much convincing would any man need to drive off alone with Scarlett Johansson? – there is no explanatory dialogue and she has no other social connections. At one point she meets a young man camping in a tent at the seaside. She goes to the beach to pick him up, but while she is there she witnesses a scene with a family picnicking on the sand: a child swimming in the rough water begins to drown; the father goes in to save the child but also begins to drown; the mother goes in and is also drowned; the man from the tent goes into the water to help but is thrown back, exhausted. Johansson slowly approaches the unmoving young man’s body at the waterline and then, thoughtfully and carefully, picks up a rock and bashes his skull in, then drags his body back to the truck. The man from the original scene appears on his motorcycle and gathers up the tent and belongings so the camper cannot be traced; both of them completely ignore a crying infant on the beach, the only survivor of the unlucky family and who will now almost certainly die of exposure.
It is obvious that Johansson and her monitor are engaged in some clandestine project that involves harvesting men’s bodies. It is equally clear they don’t care at all about the fate of these men or anyone else. They not only kill without compunction, but they witness accidental death without reaction and without attempting to help. They appear to have no emotional connection with anyone. The beach scene makes that unmistakeable. But it is still not explained just what they are doing or why.
After several iterations of the black pool thing, Johansson picks up another man who is painfully shy, with severe facial disfigurement (apparently neurofibromatosis); he is almost too shy to respond to her advances, but she slowly calms him, lets him touch her, and then takes him home and makes cinematic history. All our experience of movies – all the technology, all the waves of style and technique and theory, all the hits and failures and blockbusters and joys and disappointments – culminate in this movie, at this time. What the love of movies has kindled in us is honored, finally, the long wait justified and paid off, yearnings fulfilled, needs met, promises kept and re-made. And by that I mean, Scarlett Johansson gets completely naked on film for the first time. This I liked. Oh, yes.
My memories of this moment are private. Just see the film.
But anyway, in this case, the dude starts to sink into the pool like usual, but Johansson pulls him out and lets him leave alive. The male monitor intercepts and kills the man anyway. Johansson’s interaction with this victim – apparently understanding his fears, and then pitying him – is nonetheless the most deeply human in the film so far. Having made a real connection with someone she would otherwise have killed, she runs away, drives into a rural area, abandons her truck and begins walking alone across the countryside. Something has changed for her.
The monitoring man on the cycle suddenly appears with 5 or 6 exact duplicates, all wearing the same motorcycle leathers, riding the same bikes; they race off across the country in different directions, obviously searching for Scarlett Johansson. This is the first time in the movie that we have seen more than two members of the Johansson/monitor team (other than Dead Scarlett at the beginning). It is not clear if there are multiple members, some just waiting to be put into action, or if new duplicates are created by cloning as needed (which would explain the growth/memory montage at the beginning). At any rate, there is clearly something unnatural about these people (as if that weren’t already obvious), but it remains vague and unexplained.
Johansson winds up in a small village that becomes the scene of her increasing experience of normal human life. She stops at a cafe and orders a piece of cake, but gags and vomits when she tries to eat it. She races off into the rain, then accepts a ride from a man with a car (a reversal of her predatory encounters from the first half of the film); he takes her to his home, makes her warm, and offers her food. Later they are drawn together. The heavens open, God smiles his love upon us. Awakened longings are acknowledged and tended. What was once seen, then hidden, is gloriously made known once more. Joy suffuses the land. By which I mean Scarlett Johansson gets naked again. But I digress. She and the man try to have sex, but there is some sort of problem; she examines her vulva in confusion, then bursts into tears and runs out of the house, fleeing on foot.
Apparently triggered by her connection with the disfigured man, she seems to be trying to make a normal life, but for some reason human functions do not operate fully or successfully for her. She still cannot carry on a natural conversation. She can chew food but cannot swallow or digest it. She does not know how to board a bus, and she has no destination or place to be. She feels sexual connection but cannot actually have sex. It becomes clearer and clearer that she is not just disconnected from humans, but is in some way not one of them. But, as ever, nothing is explained. Every scene raises more questions, answers none.
She comes to a forest preserve and begins walking alone through it. She encounters a kind of creepy-friendly logging worker who tries to make time with her. Passing on, she finds a hiking shelter with some other hikers’ gear in it; she lays down for a nap, and is awakened when they come back, pawing at her and molesting her. She flees the shelter and continues into the forest. She runs into the logger again. He is menacing, then tries to grab her; she breaks free and runs, but he knocks her down and begins tearing her clothing off, trying to rape her. During this fight, he tears her skin, and it peels away from her back and face in large rubbery sheets. Under her skin is a gleaming black, non-human body (reminiscent of the black fluid from the killing pool); her eyes are reptilian. She is clearly not human – her skin is a kind of living disguise, over her obviously alien body. The logger jumps back in panic and runs away. With the skin torn from her face, Johansson’s alien loses the ability to speak English; she lies on the ground in terror, trying to crawl away. The logger comes back with a can of gasoline, splashes her, and lights her on fire. She dies silently, convulsing in flames.
Finally we have clarification (at least in part) for all the ambiguous prior scenes, and a resolution of the multiple possible explanations that may have suggested themselves. Loose ends remain – what exactly does the black pool do? are the men’s bodies a food source? why don’t they struggle?; how many aliens are there? do they clone themselves as needed? how do their human skins and thoughts work?; are the aliens on Earth on purpose, or are they stranded and hiding out?; is this project temporary or are they a permanent colony? – but much more is made clear. Johansson and her un-named monitor are a non-human species – not ghouls or witches or fantastical monsters; the black pool and human skin are (unexplained) alien technology, not magic or fantasy; they don’t fit in with human society because they’re not human – they either lack emotions or at least don’t share human emotions, and feel no connection to the human species; they’re using humans for their own purposes (though those purposes remain unstated), and mimicking human bodies and personalities to avoid getting caught. Apparently, however many of them there are, there aren’t enough that they can reveal themselves openly; they have to stay on the edges of human society and limit their exposure. Their project is simply to collect human bodies and dissolve them in the black pool (for whatever reason). They use a human female simulacrum in the form of Scarlett Johansson because that attracts lonely men (oh boy, does it!), and there is a second alien character, in the form of a strong male, to help out, do physical labor, and tie up loose ends. Those simulacra include a basic human personality, knowledge, and language skills, but they don’t have to be “fully functional” (as Commander Data would put it), so they aren’t.
With that understood, the movie snaps into focus. Each of the ambiguous build-up scenes becomes clear, all at once, and the bewildering plot turns out to be fairly simple. This is deft and subtle film-making, and it deserves credit for how well it holds the audience in an unresolved state and then, in a single shot (the reveal of the hidden alien body), answers its own questions with such finality. Once you realize Johansson and the man are aliens, the strange technology, the (apparent) cloning sequences, and their lack of human emotions or social knowledge are all clearly explained and unsurprising.
There’s another subtlety to this, though: when all the weirdness is explained, what remains unexplained is the motivational and emotional elements. Once the sci-fi premise is fully revealed, it suddenly becomes uninteresting. There’s a sense of relief in having all the strange puzzle elements resolved, but the solution turns out to be a pretty ordinary aliens-hidden-on-Earth story. (I’ve seen comparisons to The Man Who Fell to Earth; one might also see hints, in a less-aggressive fashion, of The Thing, They Live, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Under the Skin is a tale of aliens on a secret, murderous mission who aren’t strong enough to take over the Earth; instead they just hang out on the fringes of our world, another form of low-life preying on the lonely.) What then comes flooding back is the moodiness of it, the way the aliens use loneliness as both protective cover for themselves and a trap for their victims, the strangely flat affect of the aliens as they seduce and kill, and of their victims as they submit to it. The strangeness clears to reveal a kind of equivalence of sadness between two desperate species struggling in parallel.
What really grips the viewer is Scarlett Johansson’s transformation as she questions and then abandons her mission. It seems understandable that, as an alien in a hostile environment, she would be able to treat humans with indifference. What’s puzzling is that she grows out of it. How does an alien seemingly without human emotions develop them? Why would she? What drives her to abandon her mission? Has she come to regret killing humans? Does she just want to get out into the world she now inhabits? What is she hoping for, given that she can’t eat our food, can barely communicate, and is severed from her alien comrades and (apparent) food supply? Is her bid for human connection a suicide attempt? Or has she become, in some way, human? (Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles rears its head here.)
The movie sets its viewers up for an emotional whiplash similar to Johansson’s own transformation. At first we are creeped-out by her strange affect and praying-mantis seductive murders. The obviously unworldy, but unexplained, goings-on are unsettling and carry a clear portent of hostility and danger. We want to know who she is, what she’s doing, and, inevitably, how to stop it before she kills more people. The chilling beach scene and the aliens’ literally inhuman lack of caring make them villains without question. But almost immediately we are given stronger and more-moving points of contact with Johansson’s character, and it’s impossible not to feel engaged with her needs and goals. She exhibits caring toward the least-likely potential victim, and seeks to save him. She renounces her killing role and seeks a normal place in human society. She seeks love without knowing what it is. She is estranged from the other aliens, who are now hunting her, not humans, and we want her to succeed and them to fail. At the end of the movie, when she is victimized by humans, we sympathize with her. The most ironic twist in the movie is that, at the end, it is the humans who are heartless, abusive, and xenophobic; the thuggish human rapist becomes a murderer, and the alien victim (who is herself a murderer of humans) is weak, preyed-on, a victim. It is impossible not to see the human killer as a creep and a disgrace, vicious and reflexively hateful both to women and those he does not understand. Johansson’s alien becomes fully human by becoming the (female) victim of the mindless (male) violence that is too characteristically human.
Under the Skin thus functions as a dizzying commentary on what it means to be human, and on violence as a mediating force between disconnected groups: human/alien; men/women; the successful/the disenfranchised. Predator/prey is the default relationship between any two parties in this film, and it is when Johansson rejects that dichotomy – thus rejecting her advantage as predator – that she is casually destroyed. The film seems to suggest that true connection is impossible: Johansson fails at every attempt at acting human, and it is those attempts that end with her victimized by both the alien and human worlds. But at the end we sympathize with her, and regret the violence done to her although her own previous crimes are far greater. Perhaps the film is telling us that even doomed aspirations are of worth, and true humanity is a goal to be sought, however elusive.
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