Humans And Aliens
Two films have recently become a bit of an obsession for me, their similarity was completely coincidental. I actually didn’t think too much of them together as a similar entity until I was reorganizing my DVD shelf, making room for some new titles. And these two films just happened to be sitting on the shelf next to each other, I’m talking about Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (2013) and Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976).
These films are similar in some very basic ways; both involve alien beings visiting Earth to acquire something from our planet, deal with the human body, the concept of human vs un-human, and both have a lot to say about our society. The cinematography is also very important in these films. Daniel Landin was the cinematographer for Under the Skin and Anthony B. Richmond worked on The Man Who Fell to Earth. The visuals are what really grabbed my attention at first with Roeg’s film, to be perfectly honest I had no clue what to expect of this film, I knew it would be good, but I was immediately floored by the look of the film, the switch really clicked during the early scene pictured below, all he’s doing in the scene is drinking water. But those of you who have seen it know how gorgeous that shot is, the way the sunlight rims his profile, and the sparkle of light off the water droplets. Roeg gives you the time to take all this in, its very contemplative. I think it’s so beautiful because it’s so simple. The cinematography in Under the Skin is very eerie and very dark for most of the film. Once your eyes adjusts to the darkness you are very aware of all of the subtle detail within the shots. The color pallet is mostly dark, there’s a great emphasis on blue and green hues, and pops of red are scattered throughout. The Man Who Fell to Earth is composed of brighter colors. There’s more of an emphasis on lighter colors in the characters clothing, there are more day scenes so the color is warmer overall, whites are more prevalent, and color just seems to pop much more in the film.
“Too many films today feel formulaic and familiar. I prefer it when the familiar is made to feel strange.” Nicolas Roeg.
Both characters go through a kind of assimilation after arriving on Earth. We hear Johansson repeating various words in English, like she is practicing how to speak. We see her undress the female biker, taking her clothes to wear. We see her at a shopping mall next, looking through the clothes with a curious expression on her face. She watches women at the make-up counter picking out lipstick and sampling products. We immediately get the feeling that she doesn’t know the point or purpose of half of these things. But she shops and buys make-up, she’s blending in to her surroundings as she sees and understands them. The first thing Thomas Newton (David Bowie) does upon his arrival to Earth is drink water. This is obviously very symbolic, but we later lean that this is his reason for being here. He walks through a kind of run-down town, going into what he thinks is a pawn shop. He sells a gold ring. We feel more like he understands, to some degree, the ins and outs of Earth more than Johansson’s character does. Both characters move through their respective surroundings with a kind of reserved caution (or possibly uncertainty).
They both experience new and, for them, frightening sensations. Johansson trips walking down a crowded sidewalk. We hear that sharp intake of her breath, and she falls to the ground face down, staring at the pavement. The sounds around her become muffled. She pauses on this sensation, thinking, and oblivious to those around her trying to help. Bowie has a rather nasty experience in a hotel elevator. As soon as the elevator begins going up he crouches down to the ground, holding onto the bar. He asks Mary-Lou (Candy Clark) to stop it, she fumbles with the elevator, sending it up and down. He faints, bleeding from his nose. Both characters are experiencing what we feel are very normal, everyday sensations, but for them cause a lot of uncertainty or harm.
Both also have a scene when they are looking at themselves in mirrors. These moments are small and short but I feel they are very important in each film. They look at their ‘human’ bodies with a kind of disconnected interest. They examine them, touching and prodding, like it is something neither of them is truly familiar with as of yet. It reminds us that these human skins are just that to these characters, skins, costumes even.
They’re reactions to television is interesting, maybe just because of how opposite their reactions are. Bowie becomes obsessed with television, watching several screens at once, they grow in number as the movie progresses. Television is clearly being used as an example of our sensory overloaded culture and consumerism. Johansson watches a comedy show with a look that seems to be a mix of confusion and concern on her face. To her, it seems the television was more of a curiosity, nothing came of it in the film outside of that small scene.
The romantic relationships taking place in each film are very interesting as well. Clark and Bowie form a long and, at first, a very intimate relationship. Johansson meets a man (Paul Brannigan) on a train, they never speak to each other, but a kind of nurturing dynamic seems to emerge between them. The man probably assumes she has been through some kind of traumatic experience. Johansson watches carefully what he does, watches as he cooks and cleans dishes. She even twitches her finger to the beat of a song on the radio, this though is still very stiff and robotic. Both relationships fall apart once the other party discovers the truth of their anatomy.
It’s not completely clear if the man Johansson meets actually knows she is not human. The pair become intimate, all seems normal until he actually attempts to have sex with her. She becomes noticeably frightened when he struggles. There’s nothing there, we are left to assume she is without that part of the female anatomy. She runs away and we never see him again. This part of the film had a very deep effect on me, everything about her outer body is human except that part of it, it really forces you to think about gender, femininity, what makes us human, and there’s something very wrong, almost violating, about this absence.
Bowie’s reveal is much more shocking and traumatic for Clark however. His eyes are lizard like, his skin is pale and opalescent looking, and when he touches her his hand leaves a kind of clear jell-like substance on her skin. Both experiences remind the characters that they are not like us, they are ‘other’, strange, and too ambiguous for us to handle. They both accept this with a kind of reserved melancholy. Bowie simply lies in the bed while Clark cries and tries to touch him.
Both films included some very interesting and elaborate abstract sequences. Under the Skin has a beautiful opening sequence, it’s difficult to describe but we hear her repeating words in English, and we see what looks like a human eye forming. The sequence contains many more images than that but I’m sure you get the point. It’s very Kubrick like almost, and it sets the slow contemplative tone which the entire film takes on. In The Man Who Fell to Earth the sequences comes much later in the film. It actually occurs as an inter-cut sequence after he reveals himself to Clark. Bowie and his wife from his home planet are engaging in a kind of choreographed dance. That jell-like substance is covering their bodies and flying through the air as they move gracefully around each other.
I really hate to give away parts about the endings of theses films but for the sake of analysis I need to, so SPOILERS ahead. (And if you haven’t seen these by now, shame on you. Go watch them right now.)
Both films have rather abrupt violent endings, both also make massive societal statements that I must address. In the case of The Man Who Fell to Earth there’s the famous gun scene while Clark and Bowie are in bed together. I can’t recall a time when I was more shocked by something in a movie than when I first saw this, it’s still shocking honestly, and I’ve seen it at least four times by now.
The gun is loaded with blanks we learn, but it doesn’t make it any less jarring. They take turns with the gun, laughing, drinking, and shooting off blanks at each other. We see the flash and hear the sound of gun going off, it’s like it’s some kind of game. We are reminded how tender and sweet it used to be when they made love by the insertion of a flashback scene amidst all of this chaos. It’s this contrast that Roeg gives us that really makes the scene effective. They even agree later in the film that they might have loved each other before, but people change, and they don’t anymore. That simply illustrates the sad truth that people do just fall out of love sometimes. This scene also parallels the scenes with the teacher and his young student, more in the beginning of the film, as they destroy his office in a midst of strange violent passion. It’s this frightening combination of physical intimacy and violence, it works against everything we associate with a healthy relationship. Of course these are not healthy relationships, it reveals a kind of inner pain. Almost like they are working so hard to be involved with each other that they need to go to such extremes to keep one another stimulated. I also translate this scene as a kind of commentary on our sexualization of violence. We seem to like to push that line when it comes to mixing sex and violence together. It might not be something we are willing to admit, but it’s there. Look at movies like Basic Instinct (1992), Fatal Attraction (1987), American Psycho (2000), just to name a few. A scene like this also speaks to their inner desperation, Clark is attempting to rekindle this relationship that clearly is far passed, and Bowie is very worn down, with no hope of seeing his family again.
Johansson’s character finds herself running through the woods away from a man who is trying to rape her. She runs frantically through the woods, even stopping to sound the horn on the man’s truck, in a desperate attempt to get help. She’s so clearly scared and confused, you can feel her fear once he catches her.
She fights him off once he realizes that she has no vagina, but her body goes into shock, and she sheds her human skin to reveal her true form. The man, clearly afraid and scared of her now, runs back to his truck and grabs oil. He sets her body on fire as she runs away through the woods, burning and dying into a pile of ashes outside just at it begins to snow. The ending of this film can be interpreted in many ways, I’m not claiming my interpretation is anymore correct than the others. I take from it the idea that we feel a need to violate and destroy everything that is frightening, different, or unfamiliar to us. Part of it can be understood as instinct, we naturally are unsure of the unfamiliar. However, does that justify our actions; I don’t think it does. There’s also the theory that the end is a metaphor for rape, or any violation of the kind. Feeling the need to shed the skin, hating one’s own skin because of what has happened to it. The snow is a kind of symbol of purification.
Both of these films ask a really important question; what makes us human and everything else ‘other’? Is it anatomy? An understanding of our society? Is it our ability to physically and emotionally communicate? Or is it just knowing the simple fact that we are indeed human and they know they aren’t? This is good science fiction at its best, I don’t think it could get much better than what we are presented with in these films. Neither of these films concern themselves much with the hows and whys of the alien-ness of their main characters. We are shown instead how they contrast and relate to living on Earth, because of this we get much more full, rich, and, meaningful characters. The filmmakers use these alien characters to reflect back on us how we live and navigate our own planet, illuminating glaring problems and drawing attention to our own behaviors. In the end, the aliens feel more human than any of the other characters.