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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. Based on the novel by Michel Faber, Under the Skin examines human experience from the perspective of an unforgettable heroine who grows too comfortable in her borrowed skin, until she is abducted into humanity with devastating results. (From Lionsgate’s official synopsis)

Under the Skin is one of those artistically beneficial, visually appealing, and narratively challenging films I love watching and hate reviewing. Its mesmerizing tone and ambiguous themes begged to be chewed on and mulled over. This review represents only a brief surface reading of the film.  

 Under the Skin
Director Jonathan Glazer made a name for himself with dynamic, high-concept advertisements and music videos for Massive Attack, Jamiroquai, and Radiohead (among others). His feature debut, Sexy Beast (2000), is vividly festive and occasionally rhythmically edited, but also a relatively straightforward, character-driven black comedy than one would expect, based on the tone of those music videos. In turn, it was also a very good movie that proved Glazer could work with great actors (in this case, Ray Winstone and Ben Kingsley). His second film, Birth (2004), was apparently more in tune with his shorts (I haven’t actually seen it), but was not very well received by critics or audiences. Though I’m quite happy Sexy Beast exists, Under the Skin feels more like the logical extension of the director’s early promise – a hallucinogenic, episodic tone-poem told via a blend of hyper-naturalistic location photography and some of the creepiest abstract images in recent history.

There is a sea of comparable projects out there, but the one I keep coming back to is Shane Carruth’s Upstream Colorgoes about its science fiction narrative without stopping to explain anything to the audience. The almost purely visual storytelling in each case is commendable in that it walks a tightrope between cryptic and opaque ( Upsream Color does have considerably more connective plot, though neither is tied to expositional dialogue). Both films are also built around story concepts that would normally be relegated to exploitation films and B-horror movies (in the case of Under the Skin’s, films like Roger Donaldson’s Species and Norman J. Warren’s Prey). Filmmakers have often tried to slide similar material from the lowbrow to the highbrow rungs of the entertainment ladder, but most are lost in the ‘true colors’ of sex and violence. Glazer maintains an even tone throughout. He forgoes titillating violence for grotesquely surreal carnage and provocative sex for studiously beautiful nudity (not to imply that there’s anything wrong with gratuitous sex and violence).

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In addition, Under the Skin makes a sobering antidote to the audience-friendly joys of John Carpenter’s Starman, where a more friendly and empathetic alien being experiences the joys and tragedies of embodying a human body (I assume this was a more literal point in Michel Faber’s original novel). Here, Glazer’s strong report with actors pays off. Under the Skin is, first and foremost, an impressionistic audio/visual feast, but is also a surprisingly personable and even moving. I’m not sure if I’d go so far as to call it emotionally insightful, but it is engaging in spite of its disorienting structure and tone. Scarlett Johansson’s performance is pleasantly quiet and conservative (fitting, since she’s playing a character that slowly begins to learn empathy), but she also contributes to the movie via her interaction with the many non-actors. In most instances where hidden cameras are involved she takes on many responsibilities of an assistant director.

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Video


Under the Skin was shot mostly using Arri Alexa HD digital cameras, but a number of the ‘pick up’ scenes were captured with small, hidden digital One-Cams, which appear to have less resolution and more compression issues. The mixed footage is presented in 1080p, 1.85:1 on this Blu-ray release. It is sometimes difficult to objectively judge the quality of this transfer, because Glazer and cinematographer Daniel Landin appear to have embraced the format’s artefacts as part of their aesthetic. The image can be snowy with grain-like digital noise and features some chunky edge enhancement (there is also some purposefully fuzzy moments and a number of lens-based distortions). These are usually seen during the darker sequences, which are made darker, thanks to a lack of stage lighting. In fact, aside from the super-surrealistic alien ‘interiors’ (I’m not sure what else to call them), which are usually either purely black or purely white (often with a blue or red lighting gel), I don’t think Glazer and Landin used anything but source lighting. Brighter scenes, especially those shot under the daylight sun, are incredibly sharp and clear, from fine foreground textures all the way to complex background patterns (all without any of those distortion artefacts). The palette is usually dictated by the environment, including eclectic, daylight street scenes, desaturated orange and green night scenes, and some searing red interior highlights. The colours are pretty strong, but there are some minor issues throughout, including the (likely unavoidable) muddiness of some of the darker blends and some banding in the brighter backdrops. Black levels pulse a bit during the dark sequences, leading me to believe that a bit of post-production gamma tampering was required to see anything that was happening.

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Audio


Under the Skin’s experimental sound design is well served by this Blu-ray’s uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack. The sound is defined by contrasts – dry silence pitted against wet environmental chaos. It blends the natural (cityscapes and other man-made environments) with the unnatural (the blankly alien sets) in interesting ways. The stereo and surround channels are commonly utilized in both cases, though they are livelier when the grandeur of nature is involved (the seaside scenes are particularly dynamic). Some of the coolest mixing comes from the way sound is represented from inside Johansson’s ever-roving van, where noises don’t quite penetrate the outer hull and are very realistically muffled. The dialogue tracks have small issues with volume consistency, due to live recordings on location, but are generally quite clear. Singer/songwriter Mica Levi (aka: Micachu) makes his feature soundtrack debut with a discordant, driving score. The music, which is often difficult to discern from the more stylized effects work, repeats motifs and builds onto them, similar to a number of Clint Mansell’s scores, but with less obvious instrumentation – except the seduction cues, which have unique symphonic and rhythmic qualities.

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Extras


The main special feature is a series of featurettes (42:20, HD), including such self-explanatory titles as:
  • Camera – A discussion of the film’s cinematography and camera operation, specifically the hidden cameras used during the city scenes.
  • Casting – On casting Johansson and finding the profession and unprofessional supporting players.
  • Editing – The process of organizing of hours and hours of raw digital footage.
  • Locations -– On scouting ang finding the film’s many Scottish locations.
  • Music – Discussion of Mica Levi’s score.
  • Poster Design – A step-by-step look at the phases of the poster art.
  • Production Design -– Concerning the artistic and utilitarian choices made in the department, along with a look at some of the in-camera effects.
  • Script – On adapting Michel Faber’s novel into the more impressionistic film.
  • Sound – About the eerie, heavily layered sound design.
  • VFX – Closing things out with more on the special effects, most of which were achieved with minimal digital augmentation

The disc also includes trailers for other Lionsgate releases.

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Overall


Under the Skin requires further parsing. Its loose-fitting narrative and use of disparate, raw footage is certainly challenging. Perhaps tighter editing would’ve supplied greater focus, but it may have also dulled the overall impact. I highly recommend it to any reader jaded by more conventional motion picture entertainment, because, even if it isn’t entirely successful, it is refreshing and unique. This Blu-ray transfer has some limitations due mostly to the film’s pervasive darkness, but nothing I can blame on mastering problems. The DTS-HD MA soundtrack is dynamic, while the extras include a collection of low-energy, but informative behind-the-scenes featurettes.

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* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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