Call me a martian for saying so, but when Scarlett Johansson stood naked in front of a mirror in Under the Skin, the body parts I was transfixed by were her eyes. Here’s why: Playing an otherworldly predator who lures men for a kind of eerie harvesting of their bodies, Johansson – at the mirror – is trying to figure out just what it is about this curious soft shell she inhabits that draws these pathetic souls to her in the first place. But it’s all in the eyes: They are what tell us that what’s inside the flesh is not of this Earth; they are our only windows onto whatever creature, whatever preprogrammed pilot of a mysterious vessel, lurks inside.
Based on a 2000 novel by Michel Faber – born in the Netherlands, raised in Australia, resident of Scotland and presumably acquainted with feeling like an outsider – Jonathan Glazer’s movie (only his third feature, after Sexy Beast and Birth, and his first in nine years) taps into one of the richer veins of science and speculative fiction – the alienated alien.
But it also addresses one of the defining cultural conundrums of the past two centuries: What does it mean to be human in the age of technology? What is our essence? Is there something unique to us that cannot be isolated, reproduced, studied, measured? Harvested? A soul under the skin?
Genre veterans will recognize both the conundrum and the space oddity in the mirror, as the alienated alien is a figure that dates back to such films as Solaris and The Man Who Fell to Earth, and to the writing of Robert Heinlein, Philip K. Dick and sundry others in speculative fiction.
David Bowie’s hapless interstellar projectile in The Man Who Fell to Earth also spent some anxious existential moments regarding himself naked before a mirror. But the question of human essence isn’t asked by extraterrestrials alone, not even in science fiction. It’s Hal the computer’s problem in 2001; it’s what compels RoboCop to go rogue; what arches Spock’s brow; what sparks Neo’s revolt against the Matrix; and what causes the pain behind the mechanical eyes of young boy-bot David (Haley Joel Osment) in Spielberg’s Artificial Intelligence – a project originally developed but ultimately unmade by the late Stanley Kubrick, a master of the omnipotent, otherworldly perspective.
There are many things that link all these works to Under the Skin, but perhaps the most conspicuous is the role of eyes: In each movie, eyes – even the sole red orb of Hal’s – are the weakest and most revealing point in the otherworldly armour, the one vantage point from which the soul can both see and be seen.
Certain to polarize audiences with its deliberate ellipses, cool detachment and sly deployment of a Hollywood sex bomb to defuse the circuitry of male sexual desire, Glazer’s Under the Skin is, in a way, as insidious and stealthy as its van-driving manhunter. She searches the urban streets and country roads around Glasgow with a prowling determination that suggests a NASA Voyager probe driven by Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle – another icon of pop-cultural dissociative identity disorder.
Or maybe it’s an especially perverse metaphoric rumination on what it’s like to be Johansson, a real person fixed by the relentless gaze that hungers for sexualized celebrity. Her world has got to be nearly as weird as the one in this film, and you have to wonder if, coming so soon after impersonating a disembodied object of virtual desire in Her, Johansson is trying to tell us something.
Apart from the stories told by the eyes in movies like this – whether about aliens, sentient computers, wooden puppets or stalking psychopaths – there’s also that moment of terrifying reckoning in these tales when the hungry aspiring-humans reach the outer limits of their empathic crusade and hit the wall that separates them from the truly human. Usually it turns on a matter of love, frequently on an instance of sexual desire and sometimes (though it’s difficult to be certain in the case in Under the Skin) on both.
But what transpires at that instant is not only the revelation of what being human is and is not, it’s the point where the alien ultimately expires, shuts down, dries up, self-destructs or simply hops back in the spaceship and heads home.
The disquieting allure of these stories is their dreamlike power to make the familiar strange, the opportunity they enable us to see ourselves as other beings might. But ultimately what they offer is a kind of reassurance. You can copy the organism all you want, right down to its basic DNA template, and you can look all you want. But not even the most penetrating eye can see the soul inside.