Under the Skin- Review (Spoiler Free)

Rarely does a film offer an ‘experience’ as immersive and compelling as this…


Scarlett Johansson stars in this tale of an extraterrestrial who straps on a man suit and prowls around Glasglow in its transit van looking for men to seduce and consume. Now that is as good an introduction to the plot as any, however it doesn’t even begin to tap into the fascinating investigation the film takes into what it means to be feminine, masculine, human as well as alien within your community. Johansson’s character involves us in her gaze and consequently we start to see human world around her as alien and strange, an unusual experience which the film achieves remarkably discreetly.

For all the criticisms which I can imagine people leveling at this film, something which I think is undeniable is how it is rare to come across such synergy between visuals and audio. When it opens we are greeted with a single pinprick of light that feels as threatening as it does mysterious. That then gives way to the image of an eye that’s met with and dissected by the sound of a person attempting to sound out words. These almost comprehensible grunts sound digital, as if they have been uttered by a computer or an alien presence as it attempts to figure out what the fundamental human attributes are and what they sound like. From there we are greeted by a soundscape composed by Mica Levi which is less of a score and more of an amalgamation of noises weaving together to create a constant and reliable thread throughout the film. It’s intended as something which the film can hang its disparate elements on and it works beautifully.

Sitting comfortably alongside the score is the visual experimentation going on in Under the Skin. The film is composed of two broad elements; the first is the artistically driven camera work which lends the film its otherworldly beauty, the other is footage which was filmed candid camera style on the streets of Glasgow. The second mode allows the film to add a meta element to its questioning about celebrity and its relationship to normal working lives, but the second presents us with powerful and often nightmarish-esque imagery which entrances and horrifies in equal measure.

Of course one huge contribution to the film which I have so far overlooked is Johansson’s. Whereas in Her her performance was composed of nothing but her vocals, here she has very few lines to deliver and must reshape the Glaswegian streets around her into an alien landscape using little other than her physicality and the way she reacts to its environment. It’s a hell of a task and one which she performs admirably in a film that’s one of the most courageous and artistically driven in years. Director Jonathan Glazer makes no concessions to his audiences and consequently this isn’t a film for everyone. Instead it is a singular vision that desires heaps of praise be piled onto it.

Summary:

What is the film’s greatest strength? I’m tempted to go with the score… although it’s a toss up between that, Johansson and the elegant special effects.

Its greatest weakness? There were a few odd elements which lacked a little too much clarity, but it’s nothing that time or a re-watch won’t fix .

Would I see it again? Absolutely, it may not be a sci-fi classic in the making but it is a hugely commendable entry into its genre.

Thanks for reading, please do fire your thoughts out in the comment box below!

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16 comments

  1. Great review! 🙂 I really enjoyed this one. It was lovely to look at. Strange but beautiful.

    1. Thank you! Yeah it’s a beautiful and eerie film…

  2. Good write up.

    I’m glad you noted this isn’t a film for everyone as other reviews praise it to the heavens then, when someone like me comes along who didn’t get the same level of enjoyment or appreciation for it, I wonder what it is I am missing or if it is my fault for not loving it.

    Don’t get me wrong I liked it more than I thought I would but it wasn’t the five star experience for me as it was for everyone else.

    So thanks again for your objectivity! 🙂

    1. Thank you!
      Yeah I think it’s very easy to see that this isn’t a film which everyone will fall easily in love with. Glad that you liked it though!

  3. Fair review. I hated it, although the surreal, 2001 bits were admittedly awesome.

    1. Haha I thought you did! They really were very impressive.

      Did you not like Johanson?

      1. She wasn’t bad but she’s been much better elsewhere. I wasn’t very interested in her character, & frankly her physical form was of more interest to me than her physicality.

        1. That’s a shame… it’s rare for us to be this polarised on a film isn’t it!

          1. Yep! Ah well, maybe I’ll come around on it if I ever rewatch it. I did love Glazer’s Sexy Beast.

  4. This movie was fantastic and it really proved an acting showcase for Johansson, great review James.

    1. Thanks Tom! Yeah I’m a big fan of hers and loved how she got such a showcase here.

  5. abbiosbiston · · Reply

    I still need to see this but I’m fascinated.

    1. You should! It’s certainly a film which divides opinion. It’ll be interesting to hear your thoughts on it.

  6. ” it is rare to come across such synergy between visuals and audio.” Yassss! Great review! I really loved this film, and it actually ranked third in my top 10 of last year.

    1. Thanks, glad you liked it too! It’s certainly one of the best films from the last few years.

  7. Excellent review.

    I really felt let down by this film first time around. I just didn’t get it, and was really annoyed at the lack of anything – I had ridiculously high expectations though.

    I went away and gave it some time, then my friend directed me to the press pack they released for it;

    https://chrisreedfilm.files.wordpress.com/2014/04/under-the-skin-press-notes-temp2.pdf

    I ended up reading it all, adjusting my expectations and revisiting this film – I absolutely loved it. I’m not sure what it was, maybe it was because I wasn’t building it up to be something it never would be, but it certainly improves with viewings.

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