Contains spoilers for Her and Under the Skin. Also for My Fair Lady, Metropolis and more than two-thousand-year-old myths.
The basic idea for this post has been simmering in my mind since I went to see Her back in February. In that film, Joaquin Phoenix plays a lonely man who falls in love with an artificial intelligence, voiced by Scarlett Johansson. Despite the occasional sense of over-exertion in Johansson’s performance, which had the additional challenge of being audio-only in a live action film, I was impressed and moved by the film, and the story got me thinking about the depiction of artificial – in a very specific sense, man-made – women in cinematic narratives.
Strikingly, Johansson has starred in two movies this year, released in the UK in as many months, where she plays some form of artificial or essentially fabricated woman. The artificial intelligence in Her, who names herself Samantha, is brought into existence to be the computer operating system (and, essentially, personal assistant) for Phoenix’s Theodore Twombly. Her personality is calibrated to his, meaning that even though he did not design the program which creates her himself, he has a substantial personal role in the formation of her identity.
By contrast, in Jonathan Glazer’s psychosexual horror film Under the Skin, Johansson stars as an alien seductress with a vague or even incomprehensible origin who drives around Glasgow and the surrounding countryside in a white van picking up men and attempting to lure them back to an abandoned house to be consumed in some eldritch process for a purpose which the film never quite makes explicitly clear. Meanwhile, a mysterious ‘handler’ on a motorbike keeps track of her and tidies up the loose ends of those who she targets. Despite being broadly defined as science fiction, these are vastly different films in terms of style and tone. Yet they share thematic resonances which have, in fact, been recurring throughout the history of cinema, and since long before.
Narratives concerning artificial human beings seem to broadly fall into two subcategories. There are those which treat the relationship between creator and created as being primarily parental in nature, and are thus almost inevitably are about the dynamic between father and son. These I think of as the Prometheus version. And then there are those which are usually motivated by male attitudes towards women, in which the artificial human character is therefore almost always female. This could be described as the Pygmalion version, and it is this latter construction with which Her and Under the Skin appear to be in conversation.
The oldest surviving iteration of the story is from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, where he describes how a sculptor from Cyprus, called Pygmalion, creates a beautiful statue that he names Galatea, and with which of course he then falls in love with. He prays to Venus for a wife in the likeness of the statue, and so Venus brings his creation to life, and they marry and have a child and, in so far as classical mythology goes, live happily ever after. Of course, it’s significant that Pygmalion had previously sworn off women after seeing the daughters of Propoetus forced to prostitute themselves after they denied Venus was a goddess, which is never the smartest move in a Greek myth. Galatea is specifically a male ideal of purified femininity that contrasts against the example of fallen or soiled women. All of which, to put it in highly technical and academic terms, is kind of messed up.
Unsurprisingly, then, iterations of the Pygmalion myth in cinema often prove problematic. In Fritz Lang’s iconic science-fiction epic Metropolis (1927), the instigator of an almost apocalyptic rebellion which nearly destroys the eponymous city is a robot made to impersonate Maria (Brigitte Helm), the spiritual leader of Metropolis’s workers. While her malevolence has overlap with the Frankenstein story, in contrast to Mary Shelley’s novel and its many film adaptations, the false Maria never turns against her creator, the mad scientist Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), remaining loyal to him alone.
More to the point, she was originally supposed to resemble Hel, the woman Rotwang loved even after her death (he has – wouldn’t you know it – a statue of her in his home). Here Rotwang’s obsessions and his bitterness, and the robot’s conflation of seduction and destructiveness, reveals the problematic truth underlying the Pygmalion myth. But, despite this confrontation with the darker aspects of the myth, it still treats the robot as nothing more than a symbol, far from being a person in her own right.
In the classic musical My Fair Lady (1964), based on the play Pygmalion (1912) by George Bernard Shaw, phonetics and language professor Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison) trains up simple cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn) to pass in polite London society for a bet. Late in the film, after she has rejected him for not caring one wit about what happens to her once he’s won his bet, Higgins describes the now ‘ladylike’ Eliza as “this thing that I created out of the squashed cabbage leaves of Covent Garden”. George Bernard Shaw’s original play is without a doubt on Eliza’s side here, and it is, in fact, a profoundly feminist story.
However, the musical uses the same ending as the 1938 film adaptation of the play, in which Eliza and Higgins reconcile, with her repeating the earlier line of “I washed my face and hands”. For Shaw this was untenable: “When Eliza emancipates herself — when Galatea comes to life — she must not relapse. She must retain her pride and triumph to the end.”
Of course, Her has been criticised for adhering to exactly the kinds of idealisations which frequently occur in Pygmalion narratives, notably by Newsnight presented Emily Maitlis who, after an awkward interview with director Spike Jonze, described the film as a “sad male fetish fantasy”. And Maitlis is correct to highlight these themes (and that Jonze could really have handled the situation better), but her belief that the film is about technology rather than relationships means she appears to have missed that the story is a critique of exactly that kind of fantasy, that myth. Indeed, the power of Her comes through its commitment to its heroine successfully transcending her original programming and purpose and coming truly alive. And, as Shaw would have it, she does not relapse. She becomes something new. And she undergoes a metamorphosis far more powerful than that of her distant progenitor, Galatea.
Under the Skin is, by any measure, a weird and difficult film. It begins with a somewhat obtuse sequence of unidentifiable technology and the sound of Johansson’s character learning to make human speech, which resonates rather remarkably with both My Fair Lady and Her. Unusually, the director, Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast) decided to make the sections where Johansson is prowling around Scotland more realistic by actually having her approaching complete strangers on the road, as well as using actors. The actual ‘horror’ scenes, meanwhile, are strange and almost abstract, this only makes what is happening feel more threatening and sinister.
The effect is not just to have the uncanny invade the familiar world, but to make the familiar world itself feel uncanny, transforming an invasion into an occupation. Johansson’s minimalist performance (a dramatic contrast to the exaggerated earnestness of Samantha) is at the centre of this hollowed-out world, her effected impression of an English accent proving just alien enough to stand out in western Scotland, with the sparseness of the film’s dialogue adding to the overwhelming sense of bleakness and isolation. When one character spends too much time talking later in the story, it comes across as an unnerving warning sign.
After an encounter with a lonely man suffering from a form of neurofibromatosis, Johansson’s character begins to question herself and her purpose. Perhaps realising that she is as utterly alone as he is, she attempts to help the man escape his fate, and in doing so begins to question her own desires and sense of purpose. Abandoning her macabre duties, she wanders through western Scotland, struggling to connect with the people around her. But despite her attempts, she physically cannot share in human experiences, from the simple pleasure of having a chocolate cake at a restaurant to experiencing a real sexual relationship, rather than just the twisted mirror of one.
Ultimately, her artificial, alien biology, and the singular, dark purpose given to her by her creators, do not permit her to fulfil her desire to connect with humanity. Of course, Under the Skin is a horror story, and there is no space in horror for a monster which self-actualizes and transcends its purpose, and so in a sense it is the nature of the narrative itself forbidding the statue from coming to life. Instead, by relinquishing what pre-determined power and identity she has as a predator, she is forced into becoming the other central figure in horror fiction: that of the victim.
However, her fate does not arrive through her sinister handler, but instead, more mundanely and more horrifically, at the hands of a park ranger who comes across her sleeping in a hiker’s shelter, and attempts to rape her. In the following struggle, he inadvertently rips open her human guise as if it were plastic wrapping, and as her true self stands revealed, he murders her by burning her alive. Like the false Maria of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, she is both the creation of some unfathomably advanced science and also an uncanny figure whose fabricated femininity condemns her to suffer a modern imitation of mediaeval witch-burning. But where the robot’s destruction was primarily a moment of catharsis, as the agent of the city’s near-destruction is herself destroyed by those she manipulated, the death of the alien creature in Under the Skin is clearly meant to be something stranger, more complex, and more tragic.
Next Time: Existentialism in Terry Gilliam’s The Zero Theorem and The LEGO Movie! Yes, really.
 In the Michael Faber novel on which the film is based, the alien corporation the main character works for sells human flesh as a delicacy, which makes as much sense as anything else based on what we’re given in the movie.
 To keep thing simple, it’s more the stories inspired by the Prometheus myth, rather than Prometheus’s creation of mankind itself, which we’re talking about here. Obviously, the key work here is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, which has influenced so much of, and arguably invented, science fiction (of course, James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein also gives us a clear moment of confluence between the two myths). For more recent examples, just look at the back-story of Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation, or the rather tellingly named character of Sonny from the 2004 ‘adaptation’ of Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot.
 A rather illustrative exception to this informal division I’m outlining is the origin story of DC Comics’ Wonder Woman. In the first version of the character’s history, she was moulded out of clay by her mother, the Amazon queen Hippolyta, and brought to life by the power of the Aphrodite. And then some other stuff happens and she goes off to fight Nazis, as you do. Anyway, the focus on the maternal relationship (and the fact the creative agents are entirely female) seems rather atypical, and it’s no coincidence that the creator of the character, William Moulton Marston, was an avowed feminist. The use of classical mythology makes it an even more evidently a deliberate counterpoint to the primarily male-driven myths of Prometheus and Pygmalion.
 The city of Paphos is, according to Ovid, named after their son. So what we have here appears to be an origin myth based in the cult of Venus/Aphrodite. Again, clearly not a coincidence that William Moulton Marston uses Aphrodite as the creative force to bring Wonder Woman to life.
 This does give rise to what is now one of my favourite film production stories, which is that while Scarlett Johansson was in the front of the white van in a wig and fake fur coat attempting to chat up random Scottish men, Glazer and the production crew were in the back, waiting to jump out with release forms so they could use the secretly recorded footage in the movie.
 The choice of chocolate cake is almost certainly not an accident. It is, according to pretty much every romantic comedy ever made, the ultimate in confectionery indulgence for women, and is generally encoded as a female object in film. It is, therefore, significant in semiotic terms that Johansson’s character either can’t stand the taste, or possibly isn’t even capable of digesting it. Her dislike and/or incompatibility doesn’t match the audience’s implied expectations, and suggests to us that her attempt to transform herself into a ‘real’ woman is doomed to failure.