CRIMINAL ALIENS

 

Jordan Kirk and Christopher van Ginhoven Rey

 

 

 

 Under the Skin. Directed by Jonathan Glazer. Written by Walter Campbell and Jonathan Glazer.

Based on a novel by Michael Faber. With Scarlett Johansson. 2014. 108 minutes. 

 

 

What distinguishes the alien in Glazer's Under the Skin is the fact that she is a criminal. Not a mindless force of destruction, nor the sworn enemy of mankind, but a criminal like any other. She moves among men, lures them into her van, murders them. This is what is horrific about Glazer's vision, that crime is not the sole property of humans, that other beings in the universe can be guilty before the law.
 

But the figure of the murderous alien is disturbing not only because it calls into question our exclusive hold on the ability to murder. Its violence unsettles us because it has nothing whatsoever to do with the apocalypse. Instead of a catastrophic end to the human race or planet, here there is nothing but the day-to-day work of a common serial killer. Destruction is not postponed into a comforting future––the end of time––in which finally no one would have to undergo it. The scourge is already here, extracted from the fantasy of something yet to come.


Like the four horsemen, this alien is a kind of sign. But in this scenario the sign has been transformed. It can have no prophetic function in the absence of a future. What remains when the prophetic dimension is evacuated is a sign that refers simply to itself. Not a prefiguration of apocalypse, the murderous alien incarnates the destruction wrought by figuration itself. This is why she preserves only the skins of her eviscerated victims. Her crime is representation: she murders exactly as the image kills the thing, the copy the original, the fantasy the reality.

Little difference if it is the Last Judgment, a nuclear holocaust, or some calamity brought on by global warming: we live in anticipation of our end. At the same time, we have surrendered to a never-ending labor of representation: Google Earth, biometrics, food porn. The two might not be unrelated. It could be that we project into the future the destruction that our compulsion to represent is already wreaking. In which case the apocalypse would be nothing more than a historicization of the crime of representation. The death of reality at the hands of each of its images appears to us, magnified and distorted, as a catastrophe that brings time to an end.

 

In presenting the alien as a criminal, by contrast, this movie refuses to historicize the crime of representation. Instead, the crime appears as what it is. This scenario is not historical but mythical. Its truth is what the fabled primitive is always trying to explain to us: that the image will steal your soul.

But in the final sequence the alien, her human skin removed and her true form revealed, is burned alive. The embodiment of the criminal dimension of representation is obliterated, along with mythical thinking itself. This is history ridding itself of its age-old antagonist. Though it is about nothing else than the crime at the heart of the image, in the end the movie cannot stop itself from repressing the truth that it has disclosed. This should come as no surprise, since as a series of images it too is guilty of this crime.

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