The term ‘alien’ is originally descended from the Latin expression ‘alienus’, roughly translating into modern English as something ‘belonging to another’. This points us firmly towards the direction of tonal enlightenment offered in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (2013). There’s a Trojan horse-like nature to its formal audacity; are we watching an alien traipsing the streets of Glasgow and attempting to tempt and trick its male denizens into her perambulator lair of the mythical white van, or is Glazer instead trying to peer among the base questions of existence? To the naked eye, Under the Skin follows Scarlett Johansson’s unnamed alien as she traps men before they’re absorbed into black nothingness.
The concept of what it is to be ‘alien’ and a disconnect brought on by late capitalist endeavour certainly favours defamiliarisation, and makes one wonder if Glazer – the man behind Sexy Beast and Birth – is this time aspiring to utilise Craig Raine’s Martian poetry: “Rain is when the Earth is television./It has the property of making colours darker.” The similarity of the meaning of both Martian poetry and Under the Skin is the drive to make the familiar strange, a way of looking at the world anew by finding fresh methods to describe it. Glazer’s sort-of-sci-fi is disquieting throughout and there’s also a looming sense of Sigmund Freud’s ‘the uncanny’, which could be defined as being something that’s both familiar yet alien at the same time, resulting in a feeling of an entity being semi-tangible yet uncomfortably strange.
Glazer’s use of negative space and how it creates a level of temporal disruption in the audience, the unlucky loners and the alien that centres Under the Skin are mere moments in the wanton justification for the fight of existential panic, transmutified as a constant sense of all-enveloping doom. Under the Skin is a film of endings, whether they be death or corporeal transfiguration that overcomes the creeping realisation that the end really is the end, and is ever close and ready to touch us. By attempting to show a blank observation of humanity without terms that acknowledge our inward consciousness, Glazer and Johansson’s cri de coeur reveals itself as a piece that reverberates through the static of mediocrity that faces us within urban ennui. It attacks the influence of affluence and steps outside itself in order to be brave enough to do more than simply show human behaviour and institutions with complete detachment.
This is never more so apparent than at a point when Johansson sees herself in the mirror and is made aware of her own reflection. The Rubicon has been crossed and Pandora’s Box opened all in one glance. At this moment in time she realises something amiss that haunts the whole of the film. Repeat viewings of Under the Skin send rhythms towards the meanings of how we are all ‘alien’, a difference that can never be outrun but only forgotten. The use of Glasgow’s streets, with all their night-time terrors, illuminates these ideas and concepts just as much as Mica Levi’s score darkens those selfsame lurking patterns of narrative and thematics. The circular nature of time and space demands that the cycle of outward journeys be completed to the utmost of our negative capability, which gives us an uniqueness that is, at its essence, what it means to transcend our alien nature and become truly human.
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