The best sci-fi stories are those that embrace allegory-the movies that take our life, our normal, earthly, human life, and remove it one, or even two steps with small changes to physiology, environment, or culture. Thus, the best episodes of Star Trek were just one degree away from human and, therefore, said so much about humanity. Star Wars was so successful because it combined lightsabers and the Force with the forces of good and evil-also, it cast the ultimate force of evil in the universe in Nazi garb, and that is always a powerful stance to take.
Jonathan Glazer, director of Sexy Beast and Birth, succeeds in this way with his most recent sci-fi film Under the Skin. The film stars the increasingly prolific and always striking Scarlett Johansson, who plays an alien who has come to earth for an unstated-though conjecturable-purpose. During her time on the third planet from the sun, she seduces men with the curves of her earthly body, leading many of them into her van and then into abandoned homes. I will not describe the seduction process after that, but I can tell you it does not leave the men in a good place-it is no small irony that Johansson recently played Black Widow in The Avengers. The story moves with the seductions, and each new man and manipulation affects the alien, bringing her a bit closer to Earth, so to speak.
The confusing nature of the film, in which much goes unsaid and is left to be surmised, is reminiscent of Prometheus (2012), but the execution is more skillful here and provokes more consideration. The trajectory of the film, however, is easy enough to moralize: the alien (Johansson) slowly humanizes as she touches more people, while watching them from her large, white van, as she walks through the city and meets thousands of faces. What is left to interpretation is how to understand that anthropomorphism and the results of it.
Greek tragedy operated similarly to the best sci-fi stories. The mythological setting of tragedy allowed the ancient Athenians to play out their worst fears, societal angst, and existential woes in a realm a few degrees away from a too close, too painful, and too banal reality. If the tale of Oedipus cast instead an Athenian shopkeeper named Andros, a man who talked with other men at the assembly and went to drinking parties like all the rest, the tragedy would lose the universalism and profundity inherent in the remove of myth. Andros would just be a really creepy guy who, in all likelihood, would be ostracized.
A comparison to tragedy and its functions is not far away from this film. The beautiful alien, an outcast from our society, one exiled by her nature, goes on a journey of self-discovery, like an Oedipus searching for his parents or a Pentheus donning a dress and grabbing a thyrsus. Our alien leaves her home and slowly assimilates into our society, taking on our clothing, trying out our foods, and having sweaty human sex.
It is easy to view an alien as a dangerous outsider who comes with malicious intent. Our very nature-and shows like Lost– has prepared us always to distrust the other. When our alien seduces men and proves them to be, just as Apuleius described, animal bladders filled with hot air, it is easy to see the harm she causes, but she is only doing as she knows. In that way, the film is a story of adolescence. It is a story of a girl-or perhaps any being-in a process of self and sexual discovery, but with the removal of the extraterrestrial nature of our alien. This process inevitably harms others, those seduced, and it can harm the self, too. Tragedies, as a rule, do not end well.
Under the Skin is a lot closer to home than a galaxy far, far away. It is an exploration of the difficulties of alienation and self-discovery. It suggests that we all tread the line between the group and the other, like walking on that ever-receding line of tide moving down the beach, one foot in the water and one out-you’ll see what I mean.