Loving the alien

Under the Skin – the new movie from Jonathan Glazer – begins with a beautiful and eerie sequence, disconcerting the audience so that we are unsure what, or who, is on screen. This introduces the entire mood of the film.

Note: plot details revealed.

Scarlett Johansson’s character arrives on an alien planet. Here are monstrous creatures. They are grotesque and unpredictable. Though she knows their language, the gabbling, howling sounds they make are almost incoherent. Now and then they launch into random acts of violence. Yes, welcome to planet earth. These are ordinary humans going about their various business in modern Britain.

Johansson has arrived on earth to harvest us. She cruises the streets of Glasgow in a white van, looking for the lonely and the friendless to lure home. Here they are seduced into another dimension where the flesh is sucked from their bodies. She delivers her chat-up lines in a perfect English accent – who would not follow Scarlett wherever she led you? The images of streets, shopping centres and clubs are seen though her eyes, as bizarre, chaotic, noisy – Glazer makes them seem alien and strange to us too.

In the most chilling scene, she is walking at the beach and sees a child get into trouble in the water. She watches calmly as the parents throw themselves into the waves, to save him, making no move to help herself. They all drown, leaving a toddler alone and screaming on the beach as dusk starts to fall. Johansson turns and walks away. This inconceivable act shocks the viewer into realising that she cannot be called ‘callous’, simply because she is not a human. She is merely indifferent, as one would be to see ants scattering in panic underfoot on a woodland walk.

Later she trips in the street and is puzzled by the efforts that strangers make to help her. She hurries away in search of her next victim. Johansson’s unnamed character soon comes across a suitable prey: a friendless young man, disfigured by neurofibromatosis, the condition which affected ‘the elephant man’. She seduces him with remarkable sensitivity (‘You have lovely hands . . . do you want to stroke my face?’) The lonely, disabled young man at last provokes some empathy from Johansson’s character. She lets him go. After this ‘human’ act of betrayal, she flees, hunted herself now by her alien ‘controller’ on earth. She discovers the beauty of the Scottish landscape, the tenderness of a loving man and the horror of a violent one who wants to rape her, until the inevitable end.

Glazer is an elegant filmmaker. Under the Skin is not cluttered with sci-fi tropes, but delights with original imagery that is breathtaking and moving by turn. Johansson’s house: dingy and ramshackle on the outside but with an interior that is a limitless black sea. The football scarf which one of her victims innocently flies from her van window. Johansson’s fingers hesitantly beginning to tap as she discovers music. The curiosity with she examines her naked self, discovering beauty in the ordinary curves and angles of a human body. It is a testimony to the actor and director that there is nothing voyeuristic in this scene, only a curious poignancy. The final moments of the film are as beautiful as they are horrific: doused in petrol and set alight by the attempted rapist, Johansson’s alien walks through a forest as a column of fire, as tall as a tree.

As well as in its originality, Under the Skin is reminiscent of a number of films which bring an alien consciousness and viewpoint to bear on the human condition. Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death. Kubrick’s 2001. Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth. Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner. In all of these, aliens, angels, or replicants encounter the mystery of humanity, with varying results. Glazer’s alien is first indifferent, then intrigued by the people she meets – all down-to-earth Glaswegians. In the end she discovers an empathy for our infuriatingly complex species. Like the little mermaid in Hans Christian Anderson’s story and a host of gods in mythology before her, Johansson’s alien creature is seduced by mortal life and pays the unavoidable price.

Objects of desire

It’s only January 2014, but already I’m confident that Spike Jonze’s Her is one of the  strangest and most poignant movies I’ll see this year.

Set ‘slightly in the future’, the story is a romance between Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) and the ‘her’ of the title. She, however, is a computer interface. Voiced by Scarlett Johansson, she is like a futuristic version of Siri, exquisitely designed to respond to his needs for information, for assistance with his life, for companionship. She understands him better than anyone. Theodore takes her everywhere with him on his iPhone-like device. The relationship deepens, then takes an unexpected turn . . .

Widely-praised and Oscar-nominated in the US, the movie has provoked much hand-wringing discussion about our contemporary dependence on iPhones and similar devices. And it’s true they have changed our lives in a few short years. We have perfect knowledge, thanks to always-on Internet access in our pockets. No one needs to have long arguments about ‘who was in that Scorsese movie’  anymore. We have perfect communication, able to call or Skype anyone, anywhere, at anytime. Thanks to Siri, we can simply ask for what we want and get a polite spoken response back. It’s like having a super-smart PA who never sleeps. No wonder that people feel uncomfortable when their phone is not in easy reach.

There is an undeniable personal relationship between ourselves and our devices too, which Her cleverly explores. Think how many times a day you touch and stroke your phone, then count how often you do it with someone close to you.

This portrayal of a relationship with an imaginary being is not new. Think of Lars and the Real Girl (2007), in which Ryan Gosling convincingly acted a man who falls in live with a blow-up doll.  And there’s Pygmalion, of course, who brought his statue, Galatea, to life in the same story, told for the first time thousands of years ago.  What they have in common is projection of an idealised relationship onto an object rather than a real person. I was going to write ‘inanimate object’ but with artificial intelligence, that isn’t strictly true any more. In Her, the blowup doll can  talk back. In fact, it doesn’t even need a body. As research shows,  conversations on the Internet are also disinhibited and can move speedily to intimacy as each person projects an ideal onto the other.

This urge for intimacy extending to objects echoes attachment theory in psychology, especially the concept of ‘transitional objects’. In other words, comfort blankets. As infants explore the world beyond their mother’s lap, most of us make some object – a blanket or teddy bear – a ‘transitional object’. This is invested with an almost magical essence of the mother, providing a portable sense of  security and comfort, until the child develops confidence and can do without it.

Projecting relationships onto objects is wired into us therefore. It’s not an aberrant behaviour. When human cultures first developed, animistic and mythological beliefs gave personality and mystical powers to mountains, rocks, trees, and other elements in the world around us. These were believed to have intimate connections with our personal lives, creating a web of relationships with our environment. It was these beliefs which led to the formation of religions, of philosophy and the arts, and eventually to the evolution of modern science in the sixteenth century. The fact that they are not real is beside the point. Imagining these relationships helps us to escape the solitary confinement of our own minds, to reach out and explore our surroundings. It’s a mode of apprehension. In Her, Jonze achieves the difficult task of taking such a relationship to the extreme and exploring the consequences.

In the end, it is not treating objects as humans which causes problems, but the all too common opposite: when we treat other people as though they were merely objects.