Under the Skin

Discussion of the influence of Jaynes's theory on works of fiction, film, and in popular culture.
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Under the Skin

Post by ASD »

I recently watched Under the Skin, which came out in 2013. It's described as an "arthouse science fiction" flick. I've read multiple interpretations of it.

About a year before I saw it I'd read The Origin Of Consciousness In the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. It made quite an impression on me, maybe more so than I realized until I saw Under the Skin, which made a distinctly Jaynesian impression on me. I don't know if anyone else came away with the same interpretation; I haven't seen it anywhere.

In summary, according to my supposedly Jaynesian interpretation the movie is about an unconscious slave alien--sent to Earth disguised as a beautiful woman to prey on human men--becoming conscious. The twist is that because she owes her consciousness to her interaction with human beings, she mistakes herself for human. She only realizes her true identity at the very end.

The movie begins with the arrival on Earth of an alien who looks exactly like a beautiful woman (Scarlett Johansson). She's apparently replacing another beautiful woman/alien, who we see as a corpse, possibly drowned. Scarlett takes this alien's outfit, which is nice and slutty. Before going on her way, she finds an ant on her predecessor. She raises it up on her finger and studies it a long time before the scene cuts. More on this later, but suffice it to say that ants are not conscious.

Scarlett is then shown driving around Glasgow in a van trying to persuade men to get in with her. (An interesting aside: some of these scenes star unwitting Glaswegian pedestrians who had no idea they were being filmed.) She takes her orders from a man who rides a motorcycle, presumably another alien. Once she lures a man back to her apartment, he's then (via a very intriguing process!) fattened up, killed, butchered and beamed into space, presumably to the aliens' home planet.

After a few of these, Scarlett appears to become confused. You can see her having trouble interacting with humans. Whereas before she was unconcerned and mechanical, she now becomes timid and clumsy. My take is that she's starting to realize that humans are self-aware; and, through a process I recall Jaynes describing as "reverse theory of mind" (or something like that) she's becoming aware of herself. Although there's nothing explicit to indicate that she was bicameral prior to this, there's nothing to indicate she wasn't, either.

So according to my interpretation, the scene at the beginning was to show that Scarlett was no more conscious than the ant. She's just following orders from Motorcycle Dude. Only after she interacts with humans for a while does she become conscious.

Her transition to consciousness is complete when she's shown reacting to a metaphor. She's just lured another man to his doom. As she's on her way out for the next, she catches sight of her own reflection in a mirror. As she stands gazing at herself, her attention is drawn to a fly buzzing at a window, trying to get out. She stares at this fly for a while, then goes back upstairs and releases the man she just captured.

I think she saw the trapped fly as a metaphor for the trapped man. Didn't Jaynes say that being able to perceive metaphor was one of the traits of consciousness?

At this point, she kind of goes off the rails. She ditches Motorcycle Dude, abandons the van and buys a slice of cake at a diner. But the cake tastes awful and she spits it out. Why? Because she's not really human. Easy for us to say! She still has no idea.

She picks up a bloke and gives him what all his predecessors wanted so badly. But it doesn't feel good to her at all. One wonders what it was like for him. Confused and afraid--Motorcycle Dude always seems to be one step behind her--she runs into the forest and takes refuge in a logging shack. She wakes to find a logger molesting her. She runs away, but he tears her "skin" in the process. She stops to peel it off and finally discovers her real appearance--under the skin. At that moment the panicked logger catches up, douses her with gasoline and burns her to death.

The final scene shows Motorcycle Dude still searching for his slave. Presumably he'll have to buy a new slutty outfit for the next arrival. Doesn't he realize the same thing will happen to her, too? (Didn't he read Jaynes?) Or is consciousness merely an inconvenient but unavoidable part of the overall equation? You can't help feeling a little bad for him.

Great movie!
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Re: Under the Skin

Post by Moderator »

Thanks for the recommendation... it sounds interesting, I'll check it out!

You might also enjoy Automata (2014), with Antonio Banderas, for some of the Jaynesian implications.
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