Sunday, April 20, 2014

Under the umwelt

Jonathan Glazer's, Under the Skin: A slow burn, art house film about a pitiless alien entity moving through the human world, and seeing it in terms vastly different from our own.

The film brings to mind Thomas Sebeok's concept of umwelt. The different sensory and conceptual worlds that each type of organism inhabits. A mole rat, a tree, a tick, and a falcon might live and participate in the same dry grasslands ecosystem, but how they experience and process that habitat varies enormously.

The tick is blind, but sensitive to heat and butyric acid, and knows how to feel its way across the warmblooded mammalian bodies that these signals emanate from. The falcon has eyesight and mobility that are almost supernatural by human standards. It can find its way over vast spaces that it apprehends from far off. It both senses and conceptualizes the world very differently from the tick.

The predator played by Scarlett Johansson isn't quite so alien in the senses. She seems to take in the world primarily in terms of eyesight similar to humans, but she may as well exist in her own umwelt when it comes to the social sphere. The human ecology of socitial relationships between strangers is purely a place to hunt and to kill without second thought or any but the most pragmatic considerations for her.

Johansson's character transgresses cultural norms and appropriate behaviors without registering the violations. She often seems uncomfortable within her human body when alone, and has a timing to her movements and reactions - when not luring humans to their death - that comes off as much more reptile than mammal.

This makes character a rarity in science fiction. The product of another planet's biosphere and evolutionary lineage that feels genuinely alien.

Recommended for people who enjoy art house or the occasional high-concept film with a deliberate sustained intensity suited to a predator slowly stalking its next victim.

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