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species versus under the skin: a critical comparison

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Scarlett Johansson recently appeared as a sexy space thang in the Jonathan Glazer-helmed Under The Skin (2013), a film that my housemate denounced as a ‘goddamn rip-off of Species (1995).’ Feminist critics have been similarly quick to deride it as male fantasy fulfilment posing as art, where one can imagine being boinked to death by a more Scarjo-ified alien than the former film. But something about this assessment doesn’t sit right with me. Where the first film’s heavy-handed moralising and sexualising are obvious, the second uses similarly unsettling techniques but remains ambiguous. A direct comparison may be useful if we are to apprehend the sexual politics of the latter film.

The films mirror one another, particularly in their narrative function. Both adopt the well-worn Hollywood trope that codes the sexually available woman as a monster. In Species, a teen human-alien hybrid escapes a military lab. She evolves into a totally schwinging adult form (played by Natasha Henstridge). Becoming hell-bent on procreation, she seduces men in a series of bloody-but-erotic sequences before a team of scientists and experts destroys her. In Under the Skin, an unnamed alien (played by Scarlett Johansson) comes to Earth and stalks the streets of Scotland, luring men into a strange jelly-like trap. However, her slow incorporation into the human race has dire consequences. In neither film are the names of the characters important, or in the latter film even mentioned. And in Under the Skin, Johansson’s ubiquity as a sex symbol influences our understanding of the film.

In Species, the camera frequently adopts the point of view of the alien-human protagonist, but is always filtered through the observations of the characters charged with hunting her, who serve as the film’s moral compass. ‘She was never smothered with a mother’s love,’ laments one of the scientists, expressing the viewpoint that sexuality is a consequence of not being socialised (a point stressed again later by another: ‘she’s got not inhibitions, no social sense, no social structure.’)  In Under the Skin, the camera also adopts the alien’s gaze, as we scan the streets of Scotland through the windscreen of her van. Scotland’s bleakness parallels the isolation between the characters. ‘Why Scotland?’ Johansson asks a Czech man who is taking time away there. ‘Because it’s nowhere,’ he replies. The unflinching alien viewpoint allows Grazer to confront us with the loneliness of modern society. Human beings are interchangeable; dwarfed by the wide-angle shots of landscapes, and grey city.

In Species, the alien’s subjectivity is undercut by sequences that serve only to titillate. Her eroticised body exemplifies the to-be-looked-at-ness theorised by Laura Mulvey in her seminal text on the male gaze in Hollywood cinema. Scenes where she is topless, or trying on bras and underpants, have nothing to do with advancing the plot and everything to do with reinforcing visual pleasure. In Under the Skin the alien also strips, though Glazer claimed that through these sequences he was aiming ‘de-eroticise’ the audience’s preconception of Johansson’s body. Leaving the alien character unnamed enhances this interpretation. She, too, embodies the appeal in Mulvey’s theory, but it is subverted as she returns the viewer’s stare with a chilling glare all her own. This is also amplified by inclusion of the perspective of the voyeur, which the male victims embody. They follow Johansson, stripping, with jaws slack, penises often erect, into a plasma-like substance, and are perhaps stand-ins for our complicity in the spectacle. After one such seduction, Johansson’s body is inverted in the reflection of the jelly, abstracted, as she picks up her clothes from the ground and dresses. These scenes work to deflate the eroticism in our conception of Johansson’s image.

Under the Skin’s main departure from the first film’s paradigm occurs in its lack of an establishment of a concrete meaning. Species offers us a more cogent warning about the danger presented by sexually available women. Sexual promiscuity is coded in the film as both a weapon wielded by women and as a source of relief for the urges of men: ‘she’s the cure for the disease,’ one of the scientists on the team remarks, before another adds, ‘an excellent biological weapon.’

Sexuality for the protagonist is calculated and artificial. Maternal urges are instilled in the protagonist through observing pregnancy in the form of children, and protuberances in females, as is highlighted through point of view shots of street scenes. We also see the viewpoint of the alien depicted through visual renderings of her predation (where stalking is conveyed through close-ups of the alien’s eyes and the cropped circular vision of her human prey). Her face during her conquests is cold, unmoving. The alien character takes no pleasure in exploring her sexuality, or in the act of sex itself. Sex is never a choice for women outside of this charade.

In Under the Skin, female sexuality is also used as a weapon, but its use teaches us nothing. The alien’s motivation for her predation is seemingly without purpose, or a procreative urge. Babies are seen as aberrations with no ability to defend themselves through her eyes. There is no logic to her sexuality, or to her killing, and the film shows the trope for how hollow it really is.

There is no end game in sight for her endless seductions, and about halfway through the film Johansson’s character appears to acknowledge this. She begins to be subsumed by humanity through the formation of a real human relationship, which becomes one of the more problematic aspects of the film. While the only actual sex scene in the film is configured from her gaze, as we see her expressing her desire for a male lover, female identity is still defined through heteronormative sexual standards. The scene is certainly disquieting, but the ambiguity of the film I believe loses some traction at this point; it is unclear if or why this discomfort is meant to be.

The question the film raises most powerfully for me, is not “Does Under the Skin offer a more satisfying configuration of a tired trope?” but rather if there is any necessity in the repetition of said trope at all. Using this it in a more complex way is still using it, and on some level still plays into the sexist ideologies it is linked to. In the end, the two alien protagonists end up the same way: burned – quite literally – by men.

But there is no sadistic joy or pay-off in Under The Skin as there is in the earlier film. Instead, the intended meaning of the film is ephemeral as the smoke from her blackened body, which trails into the sky as the snow falls down slowly after. We are then trusted to pick up the pieces.

(Image credits: 1, 2)

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