Almost every decade since the sixties has had its hallmark sci-fi film that engenders a paradigm shift in what we believe is impossible. In 1968, Stanley Kubrick created a visionary tale about the history and future of mankind and to this very day 2001: A Space Odyssey stands as an iconic pinnacle of filmmaking. Nine years later, another masterpiece of science fiction was born when George Lucas released the first (or fourth) episode of his Star Wars series. Soon afterwards, the technological advance of filmmaking rapidly enabled and enhanced the production of scary brilliant stories spawned by the likes of Ridley Scott (Alien, 1979; Blade Runner, 1982) and Steven Spielberg, who made one of the highest grossing sci-fi films in history: Jurassic Park (1993). Before the turn of the 21st century the Wachowskis conceived The Matrix (1999), a revolutionary vision that amazed the world by its visuals and ideas. By then, CGI (computer-generated imagery), green screens, and many more techniques had become standard in the making of any visually stunning sci-fi movie and 2009 witnessed some of the most impressive feats such as James Cameron’s Avatar, Neill Blomkamp’s District 9, and Duncan Jones’ Moon.
Even though there are still four more years ahead of us, it’s as good a time as any to examine the turning points in sci-fi filmmaking of the 2010s. This decade started on a high note with Christopher Nolan’s mind boggling puzzle Inception (2010) and in the years that followed few films, if any, matched its artistry. Among the noteworthy achievements are low budget indies like Another Earth (2011) and Coherence (2013), as well as major studio productions like Gravity (2013) and Edge of Tomorrow (2014). In late 2014, Nolan made a strong comeback with another Oscar-winning film; Interstellar pushed the boundaries of filmmaking through its gorgeous and scientifically accurate space visuals, not to mention its perplexing plot of time-twisting and space-bending adventures. Last year signified a surge of masterful sci-fi filmmaking that included the return of excellent filmmakers and long-awaited franchises: Ridley Scott’s The Martian, J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens, George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road and Alex Garland’s splendid directorial debut Ex Machina.
All the aforementioned 2010 productions, whether due to their exquisite visual and sound effects or wonderful stories, surprised and impressed us on different levels but personally none of them left that distinctly unforgettable mark in my mind. I greatly appreciate and admire all of them for many reasons but they don’t quite do it like Jonathan Glazer’s latest. In 2013, Glazer gifted us with a unique film that did more than its fellow sci-fi tales. Under the Skin (2013), originally a Michel Faber novel, is not a CGI extravaganza that boasts of its visual tricks – the now-accepted ABC of any sci-fi movie – and in that sense it surpasses the expectations of the common moviegoer. Many have told of aliens yet Glazer’s portrayal of alien life is exceptional. The film’s focus is an alien predator albeit of a very unusual nature and with more unusual aims, roaming the streets of Scotland to lure men into darkness. Casting Scarlett Johansson for the role is quite unexpected as her face is one of the most distinguishable in the industry; this casting choice seems to be only the beginning of a long process carefully carried out by Glazer whose vision is not to merely tell another alien story, on the contrary, it is to expose a human one. Under the Skin poses one of the most important philosophical questions of all time: what is it to be human? Unlike philosophers, Glazer attempts to answer this question by observing aliens not humans, or more accurately by observing aliens craving humanity.
In its opening sequence, the film demonstrates the human entity as its most basic function: a machine. The sequence shows the alien’s birth, or rather the transmogrification of the alien into its human (dis)guise. The audience can see the formation of a pupil as several spherical structures come together to form a human eye. In voice over, the alien is slowly practicing the English language by vocalizing letters and sounds. The alien undergoes two key changes to “become” human, if only externally, the first is to gain a human form, specifically eyes, and the second is to learn language. The conception of the alien-human tells us that, at the simplest level, being human is essentially being a processing machine; with eyes to receive data from the external world and language to communicate data to the external world. Afterwards, the alien begins its journey in Scotland where the first thing she does is shop for clothes and make-up. This step addresses a social aspect of being human: to be accepted as an individual in society, one must look like others. This fact is evident now more than ever as xenophobia is a world-wide plague ravaging even the most liberal of societies (read: burkini ban). The shopping mall scene may seem simple and straightforward in the context of the plot. The alien after all needs to clothe itself regardless of social acceptance. However, the focused shots on women in make-up do tackle an important human trait; humans always crave acceptance and to achieve that they usually resort to physical conformity.
In one of the film’s most striking scenes, the alien is standing by the sea and starts a conversation with a foreign swimmer when they notice a child drowning and his mother rushing after him trying to reach for him as the father lags behind her, struggling against the waves. The moment the swimmer sees them, he leaves the alien and dashes to save the father. Meanwhile, the alien apathetically watches the tragic scene from afar. She does not react in any way and only approaches the swimmer to kidnap him for her own agenda, abandoning the dead family. The juxtaposition of the swimmer’s reaction and the alien’s lack of one establishes another characteristic human quality: emotive response, a sense of duty and responsibility for fellow man, even conscience. A key feature of humans is their humanity and this is exemplified through the sharp emotional contrast between human and alien in this scene.
Throughout the first hour of the film, countless shots of people on the street are used to show the audience the environment which the alien now inhabits. She drives a white van and wanders the streets looking for her next prey. Scottish strangers of different genders and ages are filmed crossing the street, shopping, dancing, drinking, conversing with friends, mostly doing mundane daily acts that all people do. These shots are the most direct illustration of human activity and they aid in familiarizing the alien with her new home and in contrasting her behavior with theirs.
During the second half, the film takes a turn as it explores a new dimension of the alien’s character. She’s no longer satisfied by carrying out her deadly missions and gradually expresses a core human attribute: curiosity. At first, she was nothing more than a huntress on a mission but throughout the rest of the film she becomes curious about her form, her environment, and all the possibilities that come with becoming human. Her becoming is charted chronologically in five stages that depict her curiosity unleashed in forms of examination of body, experimentation, emotional activation, openness to art, and sexual awakening.
The first stage is rooted in self-perception. Although the mirror is an object familiar to the alien – she uses it at the beginning of the film to put on make-up – it is used differently during this stage. The alien examines her face in a mirror, staring at it in bewilderment. Later, she poses naked in front of a standing mirror and studies her figure as her hands wander over its unblemished terrain. These two shots exemplify an important transition in the alien’s development. She now possesses a personal gaze with which she observes her physical self; the idea of observing one’s body is a simple but significant feature of her becoming and it drinks from the everlasting well of curiosity. She becomes curious, she looks. The next stage of the alien’s becoming is experimentation. Perhaps more clearly correlated to curiosity, this stage is where the alien crosses the lines drawn for her to try new things. She goes to a restaurant and orders a slice of cake. Glazer presents her first interaction with food in close-up to emphasize the experience; the alien’s mouth opens to receive a small piece of cake seated on a fork. She barely chews then quickly spits it out in disgust. The alien follows her curiosity and ventures beyond the limits of her missions to get a taste of the human life, even if turns out to be unappealing to her virgin taste buds. These initial two stages target the primitive physical aspects of the human life: the body, its form, and its needs. As the alien’s curiosity grows, her adventures progress into more complicated aspects of the human experience.
The third and fourth stages of the alien’s becoming illustrate her maturation as she grapples with higher level processes of human behavior. The third stage is emotional activation; the alien’s curiosity surpasses materialistic goals and targets social connection to others. On one of her missions, the alien picks up a man with a severely deformed face, and like all previously captured prey, she takes him home to seduce him into oblivion and death. However, this time her approach to the man is different in two respects. Firstly, when she picks him up she does not treat him like she did other men. She employs her standard flirtatious tricks but she also touches him and invites him to touch her. They hold hands and she guides his palm over her cheek and neck. Such interaction marks a first for the alien in the realm of sensual experience for although her main mission involves the utilization of sex to hunt men the process never escalates to actual intercourse or even touch. Secondly, this encounter with man is different because the alien lets him go at the end of the night and does not capture him as she did with previous prey. These two decisions represent the growth of the alien’s emotive response, which was otherwise nonexistent. Her curiosity pushed her to reach out to an alien lifeform (from her point of view) and feel sympathy and responsibility towards him to eventually prioritize her conscious emotional state over her mission. After abandoning her mission, the alien feels despondent and walks the streets aimlessly until a stranger offers his help. Although at first reluctant, she finally accepts and goes with him home where he provides her with the night’s accommodation and later they spend more time together. This second instance of emotional connection is evidence of the alien’s morphing into a social animal. Earlier in the film, strangers were lured by the alien back to her place but now the tables are turned and she goes along with a stranger. Her decision to go home with the stranger exemplifies a reversal of roles which denotes her transformation into a more human entity. The fourth stage is potentially the strongest symbol of the alien’s evolution and assimilation into the human collective. A song plays and as the alien listens to it, she taps her fingers along its beat. A seemingly simple act but it nevertheless indicates the alien’s perception of music and symbolizes her openness to culture, specifically art.
The fifth stage is a combination of both physical and emotional curiosity: sexual awakening. After the alien spends a day out with the stranger, they go back to his flat and start making out in bed. He undresses her slowly and intends to penetrate her when she pushes him away in a jolt. She approaches a standing mirror and spreads her legs, looking more closely at what’s between them. Her sudden sexual rejection is not based on a reassessment of their relationship; it’s due to her new found knowledge of her own female anatomy. Unlike a young teenager who slowly comes to understand what genitals are and how they function over time, the alien receives such information one moment before sexual intercourse and it shocks her completely. The shock generates curiosity about her body and provides a glimpse into her perception of herself as a sexual being; a typical feature of human growth.
These five stages delineate the alien’s becoming, her integration into the human experience. However, in a single final scene Glazer perfects the definitive moment where the alien can truly be branded human. After wandering alone in the woods, the alien seeks refuge in a rest house where she accidentally falls asleep only to be woken up by a man’s hands crawling underneath her trousers. She jumps up and runs away but is eventually chased and held down in the middle of the woods. The man forces himself on her and gradually strips her until, to his shock, her skin starts peeling off to reveal a black interior. He retreats. She disintegrates as her skin slides off her coal-like form. As she crawls away, the man returns and pours gasoline over her body and sets fire to it. This last minute climax provides the perfect conclusion to the alien’s becoming: injustice. Being subjected to injustice is an inextricable part of the human experience. Whether in the context of war ravaged homelands, political corruption, economic gaps, chronic disease, emotional afflictions, or spiritual suffering, all humans endure one form of injustice or another during their lifetime and this satisfies a criterion of being human.
So what is it to be human? Is it to satisfy bodily needs? Is it to emotionally connect to others? Is it to suffer injustice? Or is it to be curious? To be curious to a deadly extent that leads to one’s own scorching demise and consumption? Through his film Under the Skin (2013), Jonathan Glazer argues for the latter through the changes his alien heroine experiences when she gradually mutates to a human persona as a result of her fizzing curiosity. His exploration of this philosophical problem is a captivating 108-minute film that outshines the more traditional sci-fi productions we’ve encountered this decade so far. I do not underestimate the quality of recent sci-fi films for they too tackle crucial issues such as the stamina of the human spirit. Yet Glazer’s vision is distinctly singular in its approach, whether technical or thematic, for expressing our base and complex nature, our desires and dreams, and our worst fears about our humanity. Glazer amazes; he takes the road less traveled and chooses to tell us about ourselves through a sci-fi marvel that uncovers the mysteries lying under our skin.