Blu-ray Review: Under the Skin (2014)

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During the weekend of April 4-6, 2014, Scarlett Johansson helped lift Marvel’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier to number one with a $95 million box office debut. Meanwhile, on that very same weekend, Johansson starred in another film that opened on just four screens (it would later expand, but only to 176 screens). Director Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin certainly qualifies as one of the most surreal and visually poetic films of the year. While the entertaining Captain America sequel ended up grossing literally 100 times as much, Under the Skin is far more likely to, well, get under your skin.

Ostensibly a science fiction film, Skin is more of an oblique study of human nature. Know this going in: there is no exposition in the screenplay (by Glazer and Walter Campbell, adapted from Michel Faber’s novel of the same name). Nearly every aspect of the film is open to interpretation. Those who like their storytelling clear-cut and logical may want to skip this one. But if you’re open to a more daring approach, this bizarre mood piece will likely give you plenty to think about. Johansson portrays an alien who, along with a companion, arrives in Scotland and assumes a human form. She embarks on a mission to collect (and eventually kill) various men under the watchful eye of her companion (who has assumed a male form). That’s about it, at least on the surface.

Under the Skin (380x214).jpgJohansson, despite her natural beauty, is sufficiently de-glammed to the point where the filmmakers were able to surreptitiously film her accosting random passersby. She pulls up in a van, speaking to potential victims with an English accent. The ones who accept her invitation to hop in the van are escorted to a void-like space located within an otherwise unassuming dwelling, where they are slowly submerged in a pool of viscous pitch. If that sounds weird, just wait till you actually see it. Not all “her” victims were played by non-actors. Adam Pearson portrays a man with facial deformities (Pearson really has facial neurofibromatosis, so no prosthetics were used) who falls under the alien’s spell. His appearance has resulted in a lifelong state of solitude and is immediately smitten when this apparently accepting woman takes an interest. He even has to quite literally pinch himself to make sure he’s not dreaming.

Thematically, Under the Skin is an unflinching, unforgiving study of male aggression and dominance. As Johansson’s alien soon discovers, men are driven by their libido. Some control their urges better than others, but every man “she” encounters tries to initiate intercourse. Regardless of whether they’re just horny dudes hoping to get lucky or outcasts who never do, these guys are interested in this “woman” for one reason. Without revealing too much (perhaps more than the average movie, Skin works better the less you know in advance), even the prototypical “nice guys” only have one thing on their mind. These aliens, for whatever reason, need to collect the bodies of human males and they’ve figured out a surefire why of luring them.

Under the Skin johansson (380x214).jpgDaniel Landin’s striking cinematography and Mica Levi’s moody, minimalist score are well represented by Lionsgate’s Blu-ray. For a film this visually and sonically arresting, tech specs needed to be exceptionally strong. Luckily, that’s exactly the case, with a 1080p transfer that handles the often dark scenes very well. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix is hypnotic, making the most of the full surround spectrum to immerse the viewer in an always-interesting mix of music, effects, and environmental noise.

Special features are limited to a collection of mostly tech-oriented featurettes. There are ten in all, running a total of approximately 40 minutes. Despite one being called “Script,” don’t expect to have anything about Skin explained away. This is all pretty superficial stuff, with the filmmakers very careful to not reveal much in the way of interpretation or intent.

Under the Skin is courageous filmmaking; disorienting, disturbing, and largely inscrutable. But as a cinematic Rorschach test, it is certainly a provocative conversation piece. For anyone interested solely in Johansson’s multiple nude scenes (this is the first time she’s bared all for a movie), Skin may prove frustrating. The nudity is far from titillating (there’s also a surplus of full-front male nudity, including the rare inclusion—for a mainstream film—of erect penises). While some have concluded that Skin is misogynistic (i.e. a depiction of a “man-eating” femme fatale coldly devouring her hapless prey), it’s the male psyche that’s under ruthless critique. Whether it’s a fair portrait or not will spark many a debate.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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