The first lines of Under the Skin sound like radio static, faint glimmers of speech hummed through a distorted haze. Only after some of the half-second vocalizations repeat and expand does it become clear that they’re consonants, then syllabic sounds, and finally whole words. The manner in which these enunciations congeal into speech is matched by an abstract image of light and a circular shape that slowly forms the shape of a sphere before morphing into a human eye. As an illustration of an alien taking on a human form, this sequence not only skirts unnecessary and cheesy effects, but does so in such a way that the film immediately sets itself apart as a singular work of science fiction.
Many have compared Jonathan Glazer’s film to the work of Stanley Kubrick, a link somewhat supported by the HAL-esque glow of that unidentifiable orb at the start, as well as a close-up soon after that trains on a motorcyclist’s reflective helmet as light streaks over it in a cheap approximation of 2001: A Space Odyssey’s stargate sequence. Critics have compared the directors before: Many reacted to Glazer’s reincarnation drama Birth as if Kubrick himself had returned in this new vessel to direct it. But to pass off Under the Skin as Kubrick redux is to miss the many ways in which Glazer distinguishes himself from the late auteur.
For one thing, Kubrick would never have had the patience, or trust in performers, to shoot the film the way Glazer did, occasionally relying on hidden cameras to document Scarlett Johansson’s alien picking up unaware non-actors in Scottish towns. With Kiarostami-esque camera setups in a van, the film gets wonderfully unguarded interactions between Johansson and men who think she’s just a lost tourist. These interspersed moments of verité filmmaking lend even the scripted and prearranged sequences an air of relaxed realism, and the scenes of the alien seducing her passengers are so loose that Johansson’s purposefully stiff performance becomes erotic: a flat voice that starts to seem sultry and inviting, a perfunctory smile that could be read as coy.
Adapted from Michel Faber’s 2000 novel, the film jettisons almost all the book’s foregrounded satire of corporate farming. The only indication that the alien is leading men to be harvested for food is in an eerie sequence that shows the victims of her seduction floating in some mysterious solution, bloating until their meat is sucked out of their skin and placed on some strange conveyor belt leading to a processor. Stripped down to the most minimal illustration of the alien’s purpose, the film’s gorgeous and haunting sequences of lusty men trailing after her in an all-black void, too horny to realize they’re slowly collapsing into some inky liquid, give the impression that she’s devouring the men herself. The political thus becomes personal, orienting the film from a commentary on corporate dehumanization to an extended study of gender and, in particular, the pervasive image of the femme fatale.
But if Johansson’s character is superficially a femme fatale, the film stands as the most probing examination of that type since Brian De Palma named a movie after the trope. Making the most out of limited resources, the film takes advantage of the nearly unintelligible brogues of the Scottish locals, as well as some brilliantly warped sound design, to obscure the speech of everyone talking to the alien, allowing the viewer to hear human language as she might: capable of understanding people, but having to strain to decipher the unfamiliar rhythms of hearing a language in informal, fast conversation for the first time. Johansson plays her part with the detached professionalism of someone who uses just enough friendliness to disarm her prey, but there’s a perpetual look in her eyes of curiosity and discomfort that people get when in unfamiliar places, or at parties where they don’t know anyone. The alien’s job may be to ensnare and kill men, but it’s worth noting how little effort she has to put into covering up her stilted, terse exchanges as genuine sexual interest, and she clearly performs the task assigned to her without fully understanding it.
Indeed, much of the film’s second half concerns the alien gradually having her interests piqued by humans, to the point that she unsuccessfully attempts to eat human food, spares a timid man with facial disfigurements, and even attempts to have consensual sex with another man. In a film filled with seduction and men slavishly walking to their death, the most erotic scene may be one of Johansson standing alone before a mirror in the nude, bathed in orange by a space heater and studying her body as if to figure out what the fuss is all about. Blacked-out areas define the film’s look, but Daniel Landin’s cinematography gets to relax in this moment, capturing every childlike contortion as the alien cranes around to examine, picking up the twinge of a flexed trapezius muscle or a small gyration of the hips. The alien uses sex as a weapon, yet she has no concept of what sex even is.
Just as she starts to get an inkling of her body, the alien finds herself suddenly confronted with the reality that any weapon can be turned on its wielder. Stylistically, Under the Skin owes less to Kubrick than Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, another abstract meditation on humanism through the distancing filter of an alien. But it has equally strong links to one of the oldest works of alien fiction, H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, in which alien superiority is countered by overlooking invisible agents. In Wells’s case, it’s germs, but in Glazer’s, it’s the complex and often hostile politics of sex. Under the Skin is vague enough to support detractors’ arguments that it says nothing, but as a stealth critique of its genre’s frequently oblivious treatment of women, it’s a vital addition to the sci-fi canon.
Lionsgate’s Blu-ray captures the film’s stark palette and plunging blacks without issue. Crush is nowhere to be seen in the many scenes of near-total darkness, and even the footage from the lower-quality hidden cameras looks exceptional, with only slight softening inherent to the image source. Audio is robust, with the 5.1 surround track mainly used to envelop the listener with street noise: passing vehicles, muffled crowd talk, and other sounds that subtly induce agoraphobia. It also clearly handles Mica Levi’s beautifully upsetting score, rendering its low-end hum and shrieking glissandi without distortion.
A 42-minute collection of making-of featurettes divided among 10 aspects of production (casting, editing, sound, etc.) offers an informative overview on the film without going too deep on any subject. It’s interesting, but not as revelatory as the now well-known quirks of the shoot.
Under the Skin is one of the most intoxicating, evocative science-fiction films of recent times, and Lionsgate’s Blu-ray ably preserves its pristine video and audio.