Having just watched Jonathan Glazer’s latest movie, Under the Skin, I’m now thoroughly convinced that we have entered a post-human age — an era of catastrophic reckoning in which humanity, threatened with inevitable extinction, will figure less and less as the engineer of its own destiny. Art is always way ahead of the curve, and if recent films like The Tree of Life and Melancholia, along with novels like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, have anything to teach us, it’s this: Grab your ass, because the apocalypse is upon us.
In Glazer’s movie, Scarlett Johansson plays an alien in human form who drives around rural Scotland in a van luring single men back to her lair, a ramshackle house where, instead of screwing, the guys get absorbed into a kind of black amoebic goo where they are leeched of their innards. Johansson, who peaked as an actress years ago, is nonetheless perfect as a cold, sociopathic alien who is pimped out to procure the natural resource of us. The problem is, human beings, in all their wretched beauty and strangled longing, start to get under her skin, and she loses faith in her mission.
Glazer, whose previous movies include the wonderful dark comedy Sexy Beast (2000) and the grossly underrated Birth (2004), is a patient and elegantly stark filmmaker who has no interest in meeting his audience halfway with grand gestures and thematic hand-holding: You’re either in or you’re out. The dramatic oomph of Under the Skin hinges on the subtle changes in Johansson’s features as she is slowly and painful humanized: listening to an abandoned baby scream, watching a trapped fly, discovering the beauty of her own physical form. She becomes an alien alienated from her own race. It’s a heartbreaking, and ultimately deadly, process.
In the end it is sex, the weapon by which movie aliens almost always ensnare us, that causes Johansson’s alien to go AWOL, and it is this irony that gives the film such devastating force. Remove the sex drive from human beings, and we’d probably perish within a matter of generations; we reproduce for pleasure and love, not as terrestrial beings on a calculated mission of expansion, like the aliens in Under the Skin. And therein lies the rub. Sex leads to sentimentality, and sentimentality kills.