Under The Skin

Under The Skin

David Famularo

In reading recent issues of Nexus, an Australia based magazine that deals in subject matter outside the mainstream, it has been interesting to note that theories about body snatching aliens are common.

I had previously thought that body snatching aliens belonged to 1950s Scifi films, most famously Invasion of the Body Snatchers. This was supposedly a metaphor for McCarthyism in the United States in the late 1940s and early 1950s when it was feared a fifth column of Communists was infiltrating the fabric of American society.

China’s Communist government ironically fears religious group The Falun Gong in much the same way. Although the Falun Gong are non-political, it is their apathy in regards to political engagement that the Chinese government saw as a threat. Political apathy can be as dangerous, and even more so, as political dissension.

Falun Gong leader Li Hongzhi, it turns out, is one of those people who believes in alien body snatchers. In two interviews he gave (one in Time magazine) which were recently reprinted in Nexus, he argues that there has been (and still exist) previous intelligent life on other planets similar to Earth.

These alien life forms are inferior to humans but because they have been around much longer, are still more technologically advanced than us. Nevertheless, they desire the superior human physical form and so have been helping humans make the technological progress necessary to reach the point where human bodies can be manufactured, the aliens’ ultimate plan being to inhabit these man-made bodies themselves.

The reason the aliens in Under The Skin want to snatch humans, specifically males, is never made clear in the film but that doesn’t matter because that is not its point.

Made on a limited budget, much like New Zealand films (receiving financial support from Creative Scotland, for example) Under The Skin’s only luxury is Hollywood star Scarlet Johansen in the lead. Other than that, the film makes do with the everyday world as its stage. Likewise, the actors playing the many small parts are convincingly normal.

There are two films Under The Skin reminds me of. One is The Man Who Fell to Earth from the mid-1970s starring David Bowie and the other Liquid Sky from the early 1980s. Indeed, Under The Skin shares with Liquid Sky a close relationship between aliens and sex and seduction.

One of the strengths of Under The Skin, which is based on the book by Michel Faber, is that at every point where it could so easily fall into a familiar narrative, it stubbornly goes against expectations.

The alien honey trap isn’t wired for empathy but I constantly find myself expecting it to express feelings of compassion, one of the most obvious examples being when a child is in danger of drowning on a windswept beach. But it is worth remembering that the alien’s sense of “alienation” is mirrored by the coldness that is often the norm in human society.

Perhaps the most powerful moment in the film is when the alien seduces a horribly disfigured but endearingly naïve young man. And perhaps the entire film turns on this spot where his predicament gets under her skin. The young man has experienced victimisation all his life and the alien’s comprehension of this fact and accompanying empathy begins her own fatal transformation from predator to lover to victim.

Ultimately, however, the alien is not seduced by men but by sensuousness of the human body she inhabits. By being in one, she has in fact become one of Gaia’s children.