A Book Review by Thomas Puhr.
Recently appearing on both Cahiers du Cinéma’s top 10 of 2010-2019 and Variety’s list of the decade’s most overrated films, Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (2013) remains deeply divisive. Though Maureen Foster acknowledges and embraces its polarizing effect in her superb Alien in the Mirror (McFarland, 2019), she is not interested in converting non-believers. This text may be a tough sell for even casual fans of Glazer’s confounding foray into science fiction, but it should prove indispensable to those seduced by its mesmerizing spell.
“Part I: Watching Under the Skin” provides a scene-by-scene explication of the film: Laura (Scarlett Johansson), a human-disguised alien who seduces and “harvests” men, abandons her mission and embarks on a journey of self-discovery that ultimately calls into question what it means to be human. I began this section with some trepidation; similar analyses often struggle to walk a difficult tightrope (avoiding mere summation without dictating meaning), but Foster pulls it off. She combines an attention to subtle detail (I never noticed Laura’s childlike misbuttoning of a coat after fleeing the quiet man’s house) with bold interpretation; one theory, from which the book derives its title, involves how mirrors may operate as a mode of communication with Laura’s extraterrestrial superiors (36).
The book’s midsection, “Part II: The Journey,” chronicles the years-long process that led to Under the Skin’s 2013 release. Foster argues that Glazer’s prior directorial efforts and Johansson’s eclectic roles prepared them for the film’s unique set of creative challenges. For example, Foster draws a stylistic line from the former’s black-and-white music video for Radiohead’s “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” to Under the Skin’s “color photography that’s black and white with a vengeance” and asserts that the latter’s subtle performances in films like Lost in Translation (2003) helped her capture Laura’s “restrained…non-human affect” (61, 109).
One standout chapter, “The Birth of Under the Skin,” tracks the process of adapting Michel Faber’s 2000 source novel. Glazer read an early adaptation by Alexander Stuart while writing his second feature, 2004’s Birth (Foster 92). Milo Addica (a co-writer for Birth) contributed some script revisions, but a 2008 draft co-written by Walter Campbell was the turning point; interestingly, Campbell (the only credited co-writer) had never read the book, a testament to just how experimental the adaptation became (92-94). One of Alien in the Mirror’s many pleasures is glimpsing this pivotal draft; its (far less abstract) opening sequence describes a creature climbing “‘into the [human] flesh like a ballerina stepping into a tutu’” (qtd. on 95) and points to what could have been a radically different movie.
Other passages focus on technical aspects, from Chris Oddy’s otherworldly production design and Mica Levi’s hypnotic score, to the portable “One-Cam” invented for Glazer’s much-talked-about incognito filming of Glasgow. This inconspicuous approach spurred some extreme responses from pedestrians; in an interview with the author, visual effects artist Tom Debenham recalls how after an unsuspecting man “‘was told he’d just been in a van with Scarlett Johansson, he freaked out and ran away’” (qtd. on 134). The more traditional countryside shoot posed its own challenges, including the director’s idea to capture forest footage during a literal hurricane. Though dangerous, this excursion produced beautiful results: “Editor Paul Watts used these windswept trees [from the storm] in the bothy scene…‘That’s the visual image that became overlaid on her [Johansson’s] face’” (158).
Part II’s closing chapter, “Alchemy,” demonstrates how some memorable sequences were crafted entirely in the editing room. Like the aforementioned storm imagery, the “golden collage” of shimmering street footage was unscripted (168). The key “bridge” scene of Laura tripping and being helped up by (real) passersby was conceptualized and filmed well into the editing process (167). Conversely, addition by subtraction was sometimes required: editor Paul Watts’ observation that “‘two scenes – two and a half weeks [of work]…are not in the film’” is a solid reminder for artists to always “‘earn the next shot you come to’” (qtd. on 166). Substitute “shot” with “sentence,” and you have some excellent advice for writers, too.
References to Sexy Beast (2000) and Birth aside, Alien in the Mirror maintains an insular focus on Under the Skin for most of its length: a fitting approach for such an intimate, distinct film. It therefore feels incongruent when Foster explores other sci-fi stories in “Part III: The World of Under the Skin.” Even so, this slight detour yields some fascinating connections. Her contrastive analysis of Laura and Newton (David Bowie) from Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) illustrates the diverse results the “alien invaders” trope continues to inspire: “Newton starts out with faith and courage and ends in disillusion and despair; Laura begins as an automaton and through courage discovers her agency and her heart” (204). Elsewhere, an extended discussion of John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) provoked one of my favorite “aha” reading moments: the climactic image in each film of its creature being destroyed “in a tower of flames in the snow” (208).
As indicated above, even the text’s perceived weaknesses add value. For example, the absence of a new Glazer interview only strengthens Foster’s desire to elicit rather than to answer. Instead of dictating meaning, her interpretations reveal new pathways for navigating (and questioning) Laura’s ambiguous journey and invite readers to actively engage in the recursive critical process themselves. As the first of what may inevitably become many books on this essential film, Alien in the Mirror sets an impressively high bar.
Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy Beast, Birth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International.