More curiously, we repeatedly experience the character’s deliberate yet inscrutable routine of seduction. After driving around and chatting single men up on the streets of Glasgow, the Johansson character lures men into an interior space that seems to defy our familiar comprehension of physical space or domestic environments. As J.D. Connor observes, the van is white—one that passed unmarked in the streets of Glasgow because such vehicles are ubiquitous for small businesses and tradespeople. Thus, the white van became a tool both in the alien character’s passing as human within the diegesis and in Johansson’s passing as a non-star during the film’s production.
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The first of these sequences begins by following the logics of continuity editing and, in particular, point-of-view shots, which replicate standard modes of objectifying women and position the viewer to identify with the man entering her inner sanctum. But this construction is itself a lure for the spectator—as well, arguably, as a reversal of the gender norms in which women’s bodies are more exposed than men’s.
|The protagonist entraps an unsuspecting male victim through a striptease. Presented in a shot/reverse shot editing sequence, she leads and he follows into an unfamiliar black space. Although the set-up initially seems predatory toward and exploitative of her body, the male becomes more exposed and ultimately consumed.|
As the man walks forward, he is submerged into blackness. He and subsequent men do not seem to recognize what is happening to them. Johansson keeps walking until he has been fully enveloped, then blankly turns, walks forward, and redresses.
|The entrapped man is absorbed into a viscous black void that neither he nor we can recognize.|
When the film cuts from subjective following shots to objective wide shots, we become disoriented. The scene itself departs from the knowable world or plausible diegesis, instead presenting a black space of total abstraction where the only grounding orientation is itself disorienting. The floor acts as a mirror, and the blackness reflects Johansson’s white body and the discarded clothes, thus making the image doubly visible. Mica Levi’s score features slowly pulsating percussion with occasionally frenetic violins or bass groans; such unconventional, spare, and non-melodic music creates an effect of suspense, indicating that we cannot know what will happen. The sequence shifts from the almost-conventional to the nonsensical. Complicating matters, we have also already seen glimpses that the house is a real space.
|The black floor reflects the protagonist’s body, doubling and disorienting her racial whiteness. The material substance of this improbable floor is never explained.||A subsequent shot reaffirms the diegetic reality of the house’s interior space.|
The second seduction scene begins already inside the alien’s domicile. Rather than a structure of following and traveling point of view shots, as in the first seduction, this scene presents a relation of sustained eye contact: a structure of recognition and mutuality that ultimately betrays the unsuspecting man. This time, however, the alien becomes completely inverted to our eyes as we go under the surface of the blackness, continuing our identification with the human victim rather than with the alien seductress. This is key: here we are positioned to identify with the white human male, rather than the unknowable, untouchable alien. We are alienated from any understanding or contact with her.
|During the second entrapment sequence, the characters face each other, and the man sustains intense eye contact with the protagonist even as he is enveloped in the gelatinous black floor. This betrays the pretense that power attains to the male gaze. In seeing the man look, we begin to identify with him.|
This black miasma makes sense to her. It is an inscrutable to us. We can’t know it except as a metaphor—or know even if it is a metaphor. What kind of metaphor could this be? What is this black stuff? Can we even make sense of its viscosity? At first it seems firm, like glass. Then it seems like tar, clinging to the men and drawing them down—though without the residue of stickiness. Seen from underneath, it seems like water. From above, it is opaque. From below, it is translucent, like a tinted window. It is inky yet leaves no stain. It is a blackness that at first absorbs (the human) and then glossily reflects (the alien). The fluidity of this black substance suggests that it is an unstable metaphor. Beyond human comprehension, it’s a metaphor that only makes sense to the alien, who does not seem to notice its oddity. To reference yet another metaphor of blackness, this is like a black hole that absorbs all interpretations and meanings that we might project onto it. It is the unknowable, yet unlike the rationality of the geometric plinth in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Such sequences in this film play with traditional relations of figure and ground, in that the figure appears suspended without a grounding. The site of color-coded metaphors eventually appears to shift from these non-spaces of pure whiteness or pure blackness toward figuration itself. In the third seduction scene, we momentarily see the alien’s sub-dermal body as a barely visible black figure walking within the abstract black space but do not yet have an explanatory framework to recognize it. We can only question: What are we seeing here? Are we seeing her how her victims see her? Seeing her for what she really is? How she sees herself? When we repeatedly see her looking in mirrors, she appears to be mesmerized by her own unfamiliar figure. Does she experience the face looking back as a metaphor, rather than as her/a self?
In Alien Phenomenology, videogame scholar Ian Bogost offers a study of Object-Oriented Ontology, which seeks to displace the human as the center of philosophical and theoretical inquiry. I find provocative Bogosts’s claim that when objects that are alien to each other encounter each other, they can only make sense of each other through metaphor (Bogost 66-67). Bogost essentially defines the alien as difference itself and suggests our fundamental inability to understand difference. He writes,
“When we ask what it means to be something, we pose a question that exceeds our own grasp of being in the world.” (30)
“It’s not just that the communications technologies of the alien escape our comprehension, but that their very idea of ‘life’ might not correspond with ours. … But the alien is not limited to another person, or even another creature. The alien is anything—and everything—to everything else.” (34)
Building from Graham Harman, Bogost continues,
“If we take seriously Harman’s suggestion that relation takes place not just like metaphor but as metaphor, then an opportunity suggests itself: what if we deployed metaphor itself as a way to grasp alien objects’ perceptions of one another.” (67)
Blackness in Under the Skin could be understood through Bogost’s terms as pure difference, pure metaphor. But what happens when we make metaphors out of politically charged hues, even if abstracted? Or understand human bodies as alien? Do these point to the limits of our conception of the human? Blackness has many potential metaphors, but are there limits to what can be metaphorized? Do histories of subjection at some point demand figural representation rather than abstraction?
We might offer the critique that the turn toward post-humanism and toward object-oriented ontology moves away from the human just as the humanities has come to recognize the existence of women, people of color, queers, the global South, and the intersections thereof. And certainly we have seen that the work of recognizing some human lives has yet to be done or continues to be fought on broad structural levels.
On the flip side of post-human discourses, the theories of biopolitics, bare life, and necropolitics have foregrounded a theory of the human and of life. Yet, cultural theorist Alexander Weheliye critiques theories of biopolitics and bare life for not accounting for the ways in which racialization figures in and structures definitions of the human:
“Bare life and biopolitics discourse not only misconstrues how profoundly race and racism shape the modern idea of the human, it also overlooks or perfunctorily writes off theorizations of race, subjection, and humanity found in black and ethnic studies, allowing bare life and biopolitics discourse to imagine an indivisible biological substance anterior to racialization. The idea of racialized assemblages, in contrast, construes race not as biological or cultural classification but as a set of sociopolitical processes that discipline humanity into full humans, not-quite-humans, and non-humans.” (4)
Part of what may be unsettling about Under the Skin is that it reduces straight white male bodies to meat.
At a key transitional moment in the film’s arc, after the alien has made her first empathic action by releasing a man and deviating from her routine, she becomes formally almost totally obscured in a milky fog. As she transitions to attempting a human life, her image is almost totally subsumed into whiteness. Just as the early groundless space of whiteness renders bodies under-illuminated, this cloud obfuscates. Whiteness, in this film, blinds or masks.
Following this transition, when the alien attempts to experience a human life, she becomes involved a domesticated heterosexual romance, which begs the question: is humanity understood as necessarily heterosexual in this film? And is humanity always subject to gendered and sexualized violence? In the film’s final act, the narrative presents a reversal in which the alien, who had been a predator, becomes the preyed upon. We might read this third act to suggest that to be human is to be vulnerable.
Yet, the revelation of a not-human black female body when Johansson’s skin is peeled away offers the ultimate confirmation of her alienness, and it provokes the escalation of a hate crime. To put it even more pointedly: the revelation of a black female body becomes the ultimate and absolute evidence of the character’s non-humanity. In turning her excised face back toward herself, this moment presents the only instance—after numerous scenes of self-looking—when we witness the protagonist see herself as she is. Immediately her aggressor douses her body with gasoline and lights her aflame, as if to suggest not only that she seems unreal but also that she must not exist. This sequence marks both when other characters finally fail to recognize her as human within the narrative and, conversely, might be understood as precisely the instant when she comes to figure as a grievable life for the viewer. The man’s xenophobic violence potentially undoes the humanitarian sympathy one might have felt toward the alien’s prior male victims and any related antipathy toward her.
|After a sexual assault tears the protagonist’s skin, she peels her hide away to reveal an alien black figure underneath.||The revelation of a black body becomes the ultimate and absolute evidence of the character’s non-humanity.|
|In turning her excised face back toward herself, this moment presents the only instance—after numerous scenes of self-looking—when we witness the protagonist see herself as she is.||The protagonist’s aggressor douses her body with gasoline and lights her aflame, as if to suggest not only that she seems unreal but also that she must not exist. A burning body, rendered unrecognizable, runs through the woods and then collapses in the snow.|
The embodiment of blackness is so blatant in this film that it becomes difficult to understand the metaphor in any way other than as racialized, the embodiment of difference. That the blackness of the alien’s subdermal body appears chromatically blacker than any actual human skin tone might suggest its metaphoric rather than racialized intended meaning; as noted above, however, Hall reminds us that the identity “black” has always operated as a construction giving unity and expression to a diverse range of ethnic and racial positions rather than as a literal referent to a singular or specific skin color. Furthermore, as Weheliye states, all figurations of the human are “subject to racialization” (8), so for this to be a film to be about being human, it must also be about being raced.
We might also consider that this film presents a narrative of passing: Scarlett Johansson’s character is an alien who passes for human, and, in this film, passing for human apparently means passing as white. Yet, throughout the film, whiteness renders less visible, as though to suggest—unconsciously or not—that whiteness itself must be demystified. In the film’s final shots, the falling snow looks like ash, a disorienting doubling of white and black (and of cold and hot, of falling and rising), as the alien’s body burns amidst the winter landscape; to the camera’s lens, the white snow becomes shadows in contrast to the overcast sky.
How do we make sense of the color-coded meanings and obfuscations in Under the Skin? Does this film reiterate overdetermined iconography that codes blackness as less-than-human? Or is it negotiating a different, deracialized set of meanings and metaphors for alienation more broadly conceived? The film’s refusal to explain itself—to offer the kinds of interiority or narrative intelligibility ultimately offered in the novel—creates a structure that both stokes and frustrates the search for a coherent politics, or even for figuration. Rather than necessarily condemn this move, I argue that the film fascinatingly, uncomfortably reveals the contradictions and limitations in our concepts of the human, the relational, and the other.