Out of this world: Scarlett Johannson at the premier of Under the Skin at the Venice Film Festival 2013. (Photo: Getty)
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Alien landscape: Under the Skin by Jonathan Glazer

Scarlett Johansson stars as the otherworldly, predatory protagonist in this unsettling sci-fi thriller.

Under the Skin (15)
Jonathan Glazer

The British director Jonathan Glazer has made only three films in 14 years but when they’re this good, you don’t mind waiting. Unexpected visitors are at the heart of each. His 2000 debut, Sexy Beast, starred Ray Winstone as an ex-gangster living high on the hog (and looking like one) on the Costa del Smug, until an old associate, barking in both senses of the word, disrupts the calm forever. The interloper in Glazer’s second film, Birth, is a ten-year-old boy who walks into the life of a widow (Nicole Kidman), claiming to be the reincarnation of her late husband. Both times, the visitor was on the margins of the movie, bringing anarchy to its still centre, but in Under the Skin, that figure provides our sole point of view. Whether the nameless protagonist, played by Scarlett Johansson, is from another world or dimension is left ambiguous (it was not in the Michel Faber novel on which the script is based). She regards the human race through curious, dispassionate eyes. Soon we are doing likewise.

With the main character established in the abstract prologue as an alien presence, everything that follows assumes a strangeness that never has to be insisted on. Whether shopping for clothes, applying a slash of lipstick or riding a bus, whatever she does becomes effortlessly peculiar. There is another layer of oddness in seeing Scarlett Johansson driving a transit van around Glasgow. Why Glasgow? Well, you know how it is. You have your heart set on a villa in Kastellorizo and you find yourself staying above a Burger King in Kos. Why should things work out any differently for an alien intelligence?

Her cover story for the hitchhikers she picks up is that she is transporting some furniture for her aunt, but this is manifestly not the story of an extraterrestrial driving a tallboy to East Kilbride. Her objective is to collect men. She entices her prey back to her squat where she saunters ahead of him, disrobing as she goes. He follows her lead, shedding his clothes to the seductive sound of a snake-charmer’s lament, until he sinks silently into the molasses-like floor. Once he has been submerged, she strolls back over the surface and collects the discarded garments like a bored parent tidying up after a child. These scenes have a serene plainness, as if they were a natural exchange on the intergalactic food-chain. The annihilation is terrifying, without the alien seeming culpable or even cruel.

A pivotal encounter in which she picks up a facially disfigured man (Adam Pearson) twists that dynamic in a sophisticated fashion. In a conventional film, he would be the monster, she the victim. Knowing that he is her quarry, we fear instead for him. But her acceptance of his appearance complicates the scene further. Both alien and monster are rendered as human, with any fear set aside. It’s at such moments that the film reveals itself to be an anthropological study – a controlled celebration of human life masquerading as a science-fiction thriller.

In the second half, the alien goes rogue; the action switches from nightclubs and shopping centres to the mist-tangled Highlands. She has sex. She eats gateau. Most shockingly, she begins to enjoy the music of Deacon Blue.

The catalyst might be the moment when she studies her reflection in a mirror but in a film this oblique it’s anyone’s guess. If later parts of Under the Skin feel less daring, perhaps it is because it conforms to a familiar shape: the fish-out-of-water story in which an exotic creature grapples with our oddball ways. What keeps the tone steady is Glazer’s single-minded direction and Johansson’s subtle performance (some of which involves her improvising with Glaswegians who have no idea they are being filmed). In Birth, Kidman was called on to transmit a cataclysmic change of heart in one wordless close-up. Johansson’s task is to do the opposite: to convey meaning through blankness. I’m not sure how she does it, any more than I can say how Mica Levi’s electronic score evolves from the shrill to the aggressively moving without any apparent shift in texture. But Under the Skin gets under the skin. It is an experience that has as much to do with hypnosis as with cinema.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 4 years of austerity

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High explosive, damp squibs: the history of bombing raids

Governing from the Skies by Thomas Hippler examines the changing role of aerial bombing.

Bombing from the air is about a hundred years old. As a strategic option, it eroded the distinction between combatants and non-combatants: it was, Thomas Hippler argues in his thought-provoking history of the bombing century, the quintessential weapon of total war. Civilian populations supported war efforts in myriad ways, and so, total-war theorists argued, they were a legitimate object of attack. Bombing might bring about the collapse of the enemy’s war economy, or create a sociopolitical crisis so severe that the bombed government would give up. Despite efforts to protect non-combatants under international law, civilian immunity has been and continues to be little more than an ideal.

Hippler is less concerned with the military side of bombing, and has little to say about the development of air technology, which, some would insist, has defined the nature and limits of bombing. His concern is with the political dividends that bombing was supposed to yield by undermining social cohesion and/or the general willingness to continue a war.

The model for this political conception of bombing was the colonial air policing practised principally by the British between the world wars. Hippler observes that the willingness to use air power to compel rebel “tribesmen” in Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa to cease insurgency became the paradigm for later large-scale campaigns during the Second World War, and has been reinvented in the age of asymmetric warfare against non-state insurgencies: once again in Iraq and Afghanistan – and, indeed, anywhere that a drone can reach.

The problem, as Hippler knows, is that this type of bombing does not work. A century of trying to find the right aerial platform and armament, from the German Gotha bombers of 1917 to the unmanned missile carriers of today, has not delivered the political and strategic promise that air-power theorists hoped for. Air power is at its best when it is either acting as an ancillary to surface forces or engaged in air-to-air combat. The Israeli strike against Arab air forces at the start of the 1967 war was a classic example of the efficient military use of air power. In the Second World War, the millions of bombs dropped on Europe produced no social upheaval, but the US ­decision to engage in all-out aerial counterattack in 1944 destroyed the Luftwaffe and opened the way to the destruction of Germany’s large and powerful ground forces.

The prophet of bombing as the means to a quick, decisive solution in modern war was the Italian strategist Giulio Douhet, whose intellectual biography Hippler has written. Douhet’s treatise The Command of the Air (1921) is often cited as the founding text of modern air power. He believed that a more humane way to wage war was to use overwhelming strength in the air to eliminate the enemy’s air force, and then drop bombs and chemical weapons in a devastating attack on enemy cities. The result would be immediate capitulation, avoiding another meat-grinder such as the First World War. The modern nation, he argued, was at its most fragile in the teeming industrial cities; social cohesion would collapse following a bombing campaign and any government, if it survived, would have to sue for peace.

It has to be said that these views were hardly original to Douhet. British airmen had formed similar views of aerial power’s potential in 1917-18, and although the generation that commanded the British bomber offensive of 1940-45 knew very little of his thinking, they tried to put into practice what could be described as a Douhetian strategy. But Douhet and the British strategists were wrong. Achieving rapid command of the air was extremely difficult, as the Battle of Britain showed. Bombing did not create the conditions for social collapse and political capitulation (despite colossal human losses and widespread urban destruction) either in Britain, Germany and Japan, or later in Korea and Vietnam. If Douhet’s theory were to work at all, it would be under conditions of a sudden nuclear exchange.

Hippler is on surer ground with the continuity in colonial and post-colonial low-­intensity conflicts. Modern asymmetric warfare, usually against non-state opponents, bears little relation to the total-war school of thinking, but it is, as Hippler stresses, the new strategy of choice in conflicts. Here too, evidently, there are limits to the bombing thesis. For all the air effort put into the conflict against Isis in Syria and Iraq, it is the slow advance on the ground that has proved all-important.

The most extraordinary paradox at the heart of Hippler’s analysis is the way that most bombing has been carried out by Britain and the United States, two countries that have long claimed the moral high ground. It might be expected that these states would have respected civilian immunity more than others, yet in the Second World War alone they killed roughly 900,000 civilians from the air.

The moral relativism of democratic states over the century is compounded of claims to military necessity, an emphasis on technological innovation and demonisation of the enemy. For all the anxieties being aired about militant Islam, the new Russian nationalism and the potential power of China, it is the United States and Britain that need to be watched most closely.

Richard Overy’s books include “The Bombing War: Europe (1939-1945)” (Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times