Hot off the success of such films as The Avengers and Her, Scarlett Johansson could have any role she wanted. Her choice? Under the Skin. It’s rare to see an A-list actor star in a dark, modestly-budgeted science fiction film at the height of their career, but that’s exactly what the beautiful actress did.
Under the Skin is directed by Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast), who shares a screenplay credit with first-time writer Walter Campbell, as based on Michel Faber’s novel of the same name. I’m unfamiliar with the source material, but the film is apparently only a loose adaptation. The plot is vague and the dialogue light; it’s largely a visual affair.
Like life, Under the Skin begins with total darkness. A white dot appears in the center of the black screen. It enlarges as the mus swells. Suddenly, it turns into a bright, white light. Shapes shift. It’s difficult to tell exactly what’s going on, but it’s vaguely cosmic; reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Finally, an extreme close-up on an eye comes into view. The eye belongs to an unnamed alien seductress that takes the form of an attractive woman (Johansson).
The woman speaks to a handful of local Scots (their thick accents are a bit hard to decipher) on the street, asking for directions and making small talk. Like a spider, she traps men in her web of seduction. Once inside her home, she walks along the ethereal, black mirrored floor, while the men sink into the floor like quicksand, yet they remain unfazed.
It’s not until an hour into the 108-minute film that the plot thickens. The mysterious woman’s routine changes when she comes in contact with a disfigured man (Adam Pearson) whom she allows to live. Until this point, the movie was fairly redundant, although never boring. Her humanity marks a turning point in both the film and the character. Her journey of self-discovery includes trying food, befriending a gentleman on the bus and even attempting to have sex.
Glazer shows great restraint in his direction. The “action” scenes are often long, wife shots without the typical quick cuts and close ups. In the hand’s of a lesser filmmaker, Under the Skin could have devolved into a schlocky mess (the plot could easily be mistaken for a Roger Corman movie), but the movie works thanks to the smart direction and script.
Several early scenes reminded me of a hidden camera reality show where only Johansson is in on the joke, so I wasn’t surprised to learn that they were, in fact, unscripted conversations with non-actors. Other scenes were shot in public places (night club, mall, etc.), where real people are on display rather than extras. Under the Skin also displays the beautiful variety of the Scottish landscape, ranging from the inner city to a beach to a sprawling forest.
The film was certainly no cake walk for Johansson, but she gives what is perhaps the best performance of her career. The brunt of the film rests on her shoulders; the narrative is told from her point of view with no real supporting cast. It’s a rather physical and intense role. It also calls for several nude scenes; like the rest of the film, they are handled tastefully.
Under the Skin began playing film festivals last year before hitting select theaters earlier this year. Now it makes its way onto Blu-ray and DVD via Lionsgate. It’s important for such a visual effort to look good, and the Blu-ray certainly succeeds in that area. The disc also includes ten brief featurettes, each focusing on a different area of production – camera, casting, editing, locations, music, poster design, production design, script, sound and vfx; cumulatively, they add up to about 42 minutes of bonus material.
It’s refreshing to see Johansson showcasing her abilities in such a unique and artistic endeavor; a far cry from the homogenized blockbusters in which we typically see her. I can’t speak for the actress, but I suspect she appreciated the challenge and chance of pace as well. Under the Skin is not made for mass audiences, but those who do seek it out will become captivated in its unnerving visuals.