Synopsis: A voluptuous woman of unknown origin (Scarlett Johansson) combs the highways in search of isolated or forsaken men, luring a succession of lost souls into an otherworldly lair. They are seduced, stripped of their humanity, and never heard from again.
Release Date: April 11, 2014 MPAA Rating: PG-13
Genre(s): Thriller, Science Fiction
Between her blockbuster movies and those high-profile relationships that the tabloids love, Scarlett Johansson has become one of the most recognizable faces in show business. So why would the star of huge movies like The Avengers and We Bought a Zoo waste her time on a little sci-fi movie like Under the Skin? Who cares, let’s just be glad she did.
Under the Skin stars Johansson as an alien who takes the form of a beautiful woman in order to drive around in a van and seduce men into coming home with her. Once they do, they are, of course, never heard from again. The alien is followed around by a mysterious man on a motorcycle (played by real life motorcycle racer Jeremy McWilliams) that keeps an eye on her, cleans up after her, and finishes the tasks that she doesn’t. After living in her human skin for a while, the alien starts to get used to it, even feeling a part of it, and that is when she learns what it’s really like to be a human being.
Directed by Jonathan Glazer, Under the Skin was written by Glazer and first-time screenwriter Walter Campbell from a novel by Michael Faber. Actually, “written” is a loose term in this case, because there does not appear to be much of a script. The film seems to have been made from more of an outline; it contains very little dialogue, much of which appears to have been improvised, and the events of the narrative are often redundant. There is a plot, but it unfolds slowly and deliberately, repeating the alien’s pattern of behavior over and over. Despite all of this, Under the Skin does not come off as amateurish or lazy, but more artistic. Think of it as what would have happened if Stanley Kubrick had directed Species.
The way that Glazer approached the making of Under the Skin is a fascinating story in and of itself. The van in which the alien drives around was fitted with hidden cameras, and Scarlett Johansson actually rolled around Scotland, asking men for directions. The conversations were recorded by Glazer and his crew hiding in the back of the van and, when they found a useable bit, they’d reveal themselves to the subject. Only after the initial meeting was shot would the “actor” know that it was a movie, and he’d be asked to shoot the rest of his “part.” The majority of the performers in Under the Skin are real people, so the film has an air of actuality, feeling more than a little like a manufactured reality show.
It’s worth noting that this is the least ScarJo role of Scarlett Johansson’s career. Glazer puts her into a wavy retro black wig so that, combined with the frumpy cold weather clothing, she is virtually unrecognizable for much of the movie. It’s a gamble for the young actress, made even more risky by the fact that Under the Skin is her first fully nude role. Needless to say, she rises to the occasion. Everything about the character – including the nude scenes, which are shot artistically and tastefully – serves the narrative and helps to define the alien’s slowly building character. Johansson proves that she is more than just a pretty face and a smoking body; she’s a talented actress.
Under the Skin is a surprisingly thoughtful film. The picture raises questions that are not completely answered. There is an ambiguity about good and evil that exists in the film; it’s never made clear which character is the protagonist and which is the antagonist, the alien or the motorcycle man. It’s a strange and surreal film that could definitely benefit from multiple viewings, so it’s a big plus that it’s well made. Overall, it’s worth a look – and probably more than one.
The music and sound design in Under the Skin are seamlessly integrated, giving the film’s soundtrack the feel of an aural collage. The music was composed by Mica Levi from the indie band Micachu, and her music is electric, rhythmic and discordant, keeping with the sci-fi theme of the film. There is a wonderful violin and percussion theme that plays when the alien is entering her “stalking dance” with victims, letting the viewer know that danger is near in the same way that John Williams’ two note Jaws theme did so many years ago. The sound design, done by Johnnie Burn (who also worked with Glazer on Birth), can only be described as industrialized ambient noises – things like heavy machinery and radio static. The sound effects are strangely calming and disquieting at the same time, similar to the ever-present dissonant drone in David Lynch’s Eraserhead. Both Levi and Burn know the value of silence as well, as there are moments in the film that are deafeningly quiet, giving the viewer auditory time and space to process and think about what they’re seeing. The soundtrack for Under the Skin is as weird as the film, but it shouldn’t be any other way.
Cast and Crew
- Director(s): Jonathan Glazer
- Screenwriter(s): Walter CampbellJonathan Glazer
- Cast: Scarlett JohanssonJeremy McWilliams
- Editor(s): Paul Watts
- Cinematographer: Daniel Landin
- Production Designer(s):
- Costume Designer:
- Casting Director(s):
- Music Score:
- Music Performed By: Mica Levi
- Country Of Origin: USA