“We wanted to create a space that felt alien, but in the knowledge that you’re limited by the fact that you’re doing it using human imagination… So then you’re kind of in dream space, or nightmare… You’re trying to get to places that are more felt than thought.”–Jonathan Glazer
FEATURING: Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams, Michael Moreland, Adam Pearson
PLOT: An alien comes to Earth and assumes the form of a human woman. She drives around Scotland in a van, picking up unattached single men with no families and taking them back to her lair, where she performs a bizarre ritual that eventually consumes them. After an encounter with a deformed man, she decides to go rogue and flees to the countryside, pursued by an overseer on a motorcycle.
- Under the Skin was based on a novel of the same name by Michel Faber, although the screen treatment does not follow the original very closely.
- The movie was in development for more than a decade.
- Many of the scenes were filmed documentary style, with Johansson (unrecognizable in a wig with sunglasses) walking around Scottish streets and shopping malls. Some of the men who entered the van were not actors, but were being filmed without their knowledge. It’s been reported that the team shot over 270 hours of total footage.
- Included in Steven Schneider’s “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.”
- Selected by 366 Weird Movies readers as one of two winners of our penultimate readers’ choice poll.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The black goo, especially seen from the victim’s submerged perspective. (We wouldn’t want to spoil it too much).
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Discarded skin; gore sluice; neurofibromatic empathy
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Under the Skin‘s structure is almost skeletal. But as an experience, the film is all about its own weirdness: humanity as seen in a newly formed alien eye.
Original trailer for Under the Skin
COMMENTS: The black room where Scarlet Johansson’s alien takes her victims is as bare as Under the Skin‘s plot. Alien comes to earth, alien starts to become all-too-human, against its own plans. It’s The Man Who Fell to Earth again, only with a female lead, a more minimalist style, and side order of 2001-style psychedelia. Yet somehow Under the Skin finds its own identity, and generates a strange emotional resonance for its almost emotionless star (Johansson, it should be mentioned, is excellent as the “woman” gradually coming to realize humans may be more than just intergalactic cattle). By mixing pseudo-documentary footage of Johansson interacting with real Scotsmen who didn’t know they were being filmed and placing it alongside abstract effects-laden scenes, director Glazer orchestrates a hard clash between the real (human) world and the unreal (alien) worlds, one that throws both realms into relief.
He starts in the alien world, suggesting that it is the primary perspective. To be more precise, it begins in darkness, in which a speck of light grows, like a distant planet. In the next shot, the dot has grown into an ice blue starburst. More planetary (?) bodies appear, and a voice on the soundtrack begins muttering a progression of random syllables. Orbs flow inside of orbs, and take on the appearance of an eyeball. Have we been witnessing a cosmic journey, or the slow coalescence of a human body? Or both? We never find out; this isn’t the kind of story that provides literal answers. We burst into Under the Skin like we’ve just passed through the Star Gate and been thrown out the other side.
With little plot to guide us, Under the Skin is an audiovisual experience where the style is, essentially, identical with the substance. As such, it’s impossible to overstate composer Mica Levi’s contribution to the film’s overall effect. If the opening evokes‘s 2001, it’s as much from the scratchy sounds of Levi sawing on her atonal viola as from the mindblowing cosmic visuals. While there are no screeching Liegtti choirs to be heard, plenty of drones fill the role. “Otherworldy” is the word: this is alien music, anthems of star people, composed according to a half-recognized but unknown logic, with scarcely recognizable harmonics. A simple, tick-tock drumbeat enters for the seduction scenes, a pulse of sexuality undercut by the wavering, repetitive microtonal string line, with some synthesizer modifications for additional strangeness. I’m not sure the music, which exists more as snippets than compositions, would work as standalone pieces, but when matched to the action they make the perfect unnerving accents. The purpose is familiar—modern dissonance used to signal the transcendental—but it’s the perfect match of classical form and avant-garde effect. This was Levi’s first soundtrack, and she proved her success was no fluke with an Oscar nomination for her (perhaps even weirder) score for the 2016 biopic Jackie.
The black goo is the glue of Under the Skin. Surprisingly, in retrospect, it appears that we only visit the black room and watch the victims sink into the floor three times; based on the impact of the scenes, it feels like a lot more. Faced with a budget that had been slashed, the visual effects team came up with an elegant, minimalist solution to show us an alien procedure. Johansson lures men into her lair, a normal Scottish flat on the outside that holds a mysterious all-black, reflective room. She backs away from her targets, slowly shedding her clothes, and they follow her, hypnotized by lust. Then, marching forward like sleepwalkers, they begin to fall into the suddenly liquid floor, while the lovely alien floats serenely above them. What happens under the surface is horrifying. The process is at the same time utterly sinister and blamelessly mechanical. Johansson shows no malice as she guides the men to their fate. The black room is merely a slaughterhouse for single men, a machine to process raw materials used for unknowable ends. Just as we don’t know exactly who she is, or why she’s here, we don’t know what the men are used for, or the details of the process by which they are disassembled. But we know it isn’t good for us.
In some ways, Under the Skin is yet another film on the tired old sci-fi theme of “what it means to be human”; yet this chestnut, too, is made strange. It’s an encounter with the grotesque that solidifies the alien’s epiphany and her resolve to try to become human. The reason that the use of an actor whose face is covered in disfiguring tumors doesn’t appear exploitative is because the alien views him nonjudgmentally; it’s we who are instinctively repulsed by his swollen face. Of course, we immediately correct our faulty instinct and empathize with the disfigured man’s plight. But in this key scene, there is a curious reversal of sympathy between us and the alien. She sees nothing strange about him, but knows he is shunned by “normal” people like us. At the same time, we are acutely aware of our own struggle to accept him as “normal.” It puts us, for a moment, in her skin, seeing human beings as strange, arbitrary arrangements of flesh; why must the nose in the middle, why must the eyes be symmetrical? We make the effort to peer past the man’s external peculiarities. She seems to be probing him for the usual hallmarks of her perfect prey: no family, no girlfriend, no one to report him missing… And yet, their conversation seems genuinely tender—even though we know it’s a lie, because she has been shown to us as nothing more than a predator. The scene becomes genuinely strange and affecting by jumbling up our emotions, juxtaposing suspense with sympathy. Adam Pearson is cast because of his unusual appearance—but isn’t Johansson, too? Beauty and ugliness are both only skin deep. How clichéd. But you seldom see a cliché executed with such complexity and power. That’s Under the Skin’s triumph; not that it shows us something new, but that it shows us strange new ways to see familiar things.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…a true weirdo midnight movie in the tradition of ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ (1976), ‘Eraserhead’ (1977) and ‘Liquid Sky’ (1982). But it could have been more.”–Joe Neumaier, New York Daily News (contemporaneous)
“A totally wacky head-trip with midnight movie sensibilities and a daring avant garde spirit, Glazer’s movie meanders aplenty, but owes much to Johansson’s intense commitment to a strangely erotic, unnerving performance unlike anything she has done before.”–Eric Kohn, IndieWire (contemporaneous)
UNDER THE SKIN – The usual, but check out the mysterious links at the bottom of the page
IMDB LINK: Under the Skin (2013)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Interview: Jonathan Glazer on Under The Skin – 20-minute video of the director talking about the film for Film4
Scarlet Johansson as a Deadly Alien in ‘Under the Skin’ – Stephen Holden’s New York Times review features video clips, including one where Glazer provides commentary
Why Jonathan Glazer’s ‘Under the Skin’ Took a Decade to Make – Print interview with Glazer for IndieWire
Scarlett Johansson on playing ‘unscripted’ scavenging alien – Johannson interview with the BBC (print and video)
Under The Skin: at any cost – Screen Daily article describing the long development process for the movie
Under the Skin: why did this chilling masterpiece take a decade? – Another detailed discussion of the film’s journey to screen, this one by The Guardian with many Glazer quotes
Under the Skin (2014) | BFI – Fellow director discusses the film for the British Film Institute
Making music for Scarlett: how an indie composer hit the big time – Composer Mica Levi discusses the soundtrack with The Guardian
Adam Pearson talk Under the Skin and Scarlett Johansson on Studio 10 – Interview with Pearson (the “deformed man”) for an Australian TV program
LIST CANDIDATE: UNDER THE SKIN (2013) – ‘s original appraisal of the film for this site
DVD INFO: Lionsgate released the DVD (buy) and Blu-ray (buy) on behalf of distributor A24. Even native English-speakers may appreciate the option for subtitles to sort out the thick Scottish brogues. The crew-interview featurettes run about five minutes each and cover camerawork, casting, editing, locations, music, poster design, production design, visual effects, the script, and the sound design. Among the numerous trailers for A24 products included on the disc, the one for fellow 2013 Certified Weird inductee Enemy (2013) appears most prominently (and in fact, autoplays when you insert the DVD).
Of course, Under the Skin is also available digitally on-demand (buy).