Alien in the Mirror:
Scarlett Johansson, Jonathan Glazer, and Under the Skin
Dan Jones reviews Alien in the Mirror, author and critic Maureen Foster’s take on sci-fi oddity Under the Skin: a headfirst dive into the film’s deathly black soup of alien visitation, erotic liquification, and the dark art of moviemaking.
A steamy love letter in three acts, Maureen Foster’s Alien in the Mirror is a glowing examination of Under The Skin, Jonathan Glazer’s 2013 science-fiction feature, and the object of Foster’s affection.
Critics frothed over Glazer’s film on its release – and it certainly has retained its power to both mystify and fascinate. Its obtuse symbolism, half-whispered ideas, and restrained aesthetic merging cold Glasgow realism with a sort of bleak poeticism make it a challenging work – E.T. it ain’t. Not everyone who watches Under The Skin falls immediately under its spell, but Foster is entranced.
Inspired by Michel Faber’s 2000 debut novel (although quite a departure from it, as Foster details), British director Glazer cast Scarlett Johansson as an emotionless Earth-bound alien in human skin who lures men, blinkered by the promise of sex and intimacy, into an abandoned flat containing a curious black void and… slowly liquefies them, processing their insides into a meaty sludge. Eventually, her almost unknowable, deathly mission goes awry; she seems to find herself enslaved to emotion, and vulnerable to the men on whom she preys.
Foster finds intense personal resonance in Under the Skin, its story and script, its soundtrack and central performance – even the film poster that hung outside her neighbourhood movie theatre tantalised her for weeks before her first viewing. Between then and now, it is fair to say Foster has geeked out, consuming anything and everything to do with the work and – years later – Alien in the Mirror is her meticulous, reverent response. Spoiler alert: she loves it.
Act one of Alien in the Mirror is a scene-by-scene analysis of the Under The Skin itself. Foster takes the film apart, dismembering each frame for up-close examination before she forensically pieces it all back together again like scraps of a weather balloon at Roswell. She approaches it at an almost atomic level, noting Daniel Landin’s cinematography, Paul Watts’s editing, and the lighting and sound design as much as Johansson’s captivating central performance. But, using interviews with the cast and crew, Foster has great fun unpicking the film’s mysteries; she’s in her element offering theories, and revealing hidden meanings and the happy accidents that have enriched the movie.
Foster tells us Glazer’s style is to ‘withhold more than he gives,’ playing on our sense of longing, and that fans of the film – like Foster herself – tend to prefer this longing rather than knowing. As such, this is the underlying tension that powers Alien in the Mirror, as Foster attempts to do just what Glazer didn’t – that is to reveal the film’s true message. And just what is that message? What is Glazer trying to say with Scarlett Johansson in her sad faux fur coat and white van, driving around a drizzle-soaked Scotland, hunting down men? Are our emotions, our kindness and altruism, love and hate, what truly make us human? And is being made into a human pie filling a feminist act?
The film has moments of true, nihilistic horror, delivered powerfully under Glazer’s plaintive direction. When Johansson’s alien attempts to seduce a man on a windswept beach, they are interrupted by his doomed attempt to save a drowning couple. He returns, exhausted, and she observes him for a moment before glumly murdering him with a rock. As she drags his body away, Glazer shows us the drowned couple’s screaming child, abandoned and fated to die in the remote, wintry landscape. It’s a haunting, uncomfortable scene that underlines Johansson’s alien’s inability to feel – and it stays with you.
And yet, in the midst of all this horror, Foster sees Under The Skin very much as a woman’s journey of self-discovery. Johansson’s character develops empathy, frees one of her captured men (before he’s liquified), and experiences tenderness from another. And just as she begins to discover herself, she falls prey to the other end of the emotional spectrum, that specifically male fear and sexual violence to which her character meets her end.
The second act is a behind-the-scenes study of how the film came to be, the ‘business end’ of moviemaking as Foster calls it. Here, she outlines the creatives involved via intimate biographies, the project’s long gestation, the endless scramble for funds, and Michel Faber’s original novel on which the film is based. What Foster expertly shows is filmmaking as collective artistic endeavour, a curated wealth of separate works and efforts that come together to create the whole. This is made clear in Foster’s account of composer Mica Levi (of Micachu and the Shapes)’s much celebrated soundtrack, and her descriptions of the hand-crafted special effects and hidden camera filming are fascinating.
Finally, Foster brings it all together, identifying Under The Skin’s place in contemporary film criticism, and where it might sit in a hall of fame of slippery-when-wet sci-fi eroticism and other space oddities. It’s here Foster most confidently stretches her academic legs, serving deep film theory, film as art, and the Under The Skin’s explorations of gender, sex, and humanity, in her attempts to contextualise Glazer’s film.
Foster’s fascination with Under the Skin can, at times, belies its bleakness; its opaque and occasionally frustrating narrative, and its tendency to forgo clarity in favour of symbolism. In this way, Foster’s in-awe approach might mean that much of Under The Skin’s somewhat divisive nature could go unexplored. Many viewers – and most critics – love this film, but a dour alien touring a drizzly Glasgow in a white van, artless and spare dialogue, and lives slowly snuffed out in a deathly black soup might be worth more of a shakedown?
And yet there is something otherworldly in a writer at the top of their game focusing wholeheartedly on something they truly love. Alien in the Mirror comes alive in the moments Foster strays away from the book’s extensive interviews, and her own voice comes through. At one point, she recalls what ignited her own love of the movies, from watching Invasion of the Body Snatchers as a child in her PJs, to spending her career trying to answer the questions classic sci-movies asked of her. Film reviews, script reading, fiction writing and teaching all followed, and now, Alien in the Mirror. Through her love and craft, and years of dedication, Foster perhaps reveals more about Under The Skin than the film itself ever could.
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