Adaptation Blu-ray Review

Prowling for a Blu-ray Review: Under the Skin

August 3, 2014Ben MK

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Mysterious skin...

Call it the Scarlett effect — the 29-year-old Johansson has been on a bit of a hot streak as of late, starring in a string of sci-fi sleeper hits, all within the span of mere months. In her most recent film, Luc Besson’s Lucy, she plays a woman gifted with unparalleled intellectual powers. And this past Winter, she was the sultry, disembodied voice of a sentient computer operating system, in Spike Jonze’s Her. But it's her role in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, in which she plays an alien visitor on a mysterious mission, that has garnered the actress the most buzz.


The Film Unlike the novel by author Michael Faber, on which the film loosely finds its basis, little is revealed about the identity of Johansson's otherworldly femme fatale, a raven-haired seductress who prowls the highways and byways of Glasgow in an innocuous white van. In the book, she was Isserley, an agent of an alien conglomerate sent to Earth to ensnare suitable human specimens — and male hitchhikers were her chosen prey. In the film version, her character is defined by the aura of mystery that surrounds her, as Glazer and co-writer Walter Campbell jettison the original story's more tangible elements, reducing it to its metaphysical core and leaving viewers to speculate on her backstory and motives.

As the film's nameless heroine, Johansson's appearance is meant to allow her to fade into the background; instead it's almost iconic — adorned by her fur coat, her come-hither stare and pouty red lips framed by a mane of stark black hair — bringing to mind Sean Young's character of Rachael in Blade Runner. Both demure and deadly, she uses her feminine wiles on a string of unsuspecting men — most of whom she meets by the roadside — luring and trapping them beneath sinister, black waters, from which the only hope of escape comes through the liquification of their tissue, organs and bones. Her numerous conquests takes an unexpected toll on her, however, when she finds herself developing empathy for her victims, leading her to abandon her predatory mission in favor of a more self-exploratory one. But the further she allows herself to be drawn into the myriad of human emotion, the more vulnerable she becomes — until finally, the huntress becomes the hunted.

Her journey of self-discovery is told not through words, but — quite literally — through Johansson's eyes. Because though she speaks, her words belie her true thoughts. Though she emotes, it's no more than a show put on for the benefit of the men she tries to entrap. And when she's deep in thought — whether it's watching as a scene of human tragedy unfolds before her on a stormy shoreline or intently studying her physique in a mirror — she's utterly expressionless. The only insight into her thought processes comes from examining the subtle shifting of the pupils or the slightest furrowing of the brow.

Johansson's performance is inward-facing to the nth degree, but at the same time it's altogether absorbing and mesmerizing to watch. And in tandem with the unorthodox approach Glazer took to shooting some of the film's scenes — using a hidden camera to film Johansson's encounters with everyday Glaswegians — it helps to create a heightened sense of realism, resulting in a brooding cinéma vérité experience that blurs the line between reality and fiction.

Audio/Visual Fidelity Under the Skin slips stealthily onto Blu-ray with a top-notch A/V presentation, especially considering the different camera types that Glazer and cinematographer Daniel Landin employed in filming its various scenes. Some of the film was shot covertly, using the compact one-cam system, and some of it was shot using more traditional camera rigs; but you wouldn’t necessarily know it from the quality of the finished product, as all the footage blends together fairly seamlessly. The hi-def image boasts a fair amount of fine detail, as can be seen in the individual hairs of Johansson’s fur coat, the multitude of rocks and pebbles littering the shoreline in one scene and the woodland undergrowth that fills the frame of another. Black levels are also quite impressive, which is doubly important as much of the film — particularly its first half — takes place in the shadows. And color and contrast are exquisite as well, with some scenes bathed entirely in deep red, blue and golden hues. Audio-wise, the disc comes equipped with a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack, perfectly suited for reproducing the film’s naturalistic sound design, from ambient street noises to the sound of crashing waves by the ocean’s edge, with composer Mica Levy’s hypnotic score being the highlight.

Special Features Mongrel Media’s Blu-ray release includes a 42-minute look at the making of the film, in the form of ten brief featurettes, each delving into a different aspect of the production process. Camera focuses on the objective role the camera played in the film, which informed shooting techniques. Casting touches on the use of both professional and untrained actors in the film. Editing speaks to the challenges of processing the mass quantities of footage that resulted from shooting on up to nine cameras simultaneously. Locations deals with finding ideal filming locales, especially for the forest featured in the film’s third act. Music is a discussion of the film’s unique score and what the different instrumentation represents in the film. Poster Design showcases the different iterations of the theatrical poster. Production Design highlights the film’s visual aesthetic and provides insight into the filming of scenes in the all-black lair of the alien. Script looks at the evolution of the shooting script. Sound is a peek into the film’s sound design. And VFX is an examination of some of the visual effects that helped bring the film to life, with special attention paid to a key scene near the end of the film. All featurettes are comprised of interviews with the filmmakers and crew, intercut with production stills and the rare film clip.

The Bottom Line Under the Skin may exhibit all the outward trappings of sci-fi fare, but in truth it escapes classification. Part glossy science fiction parable and part introspective character study, it's also deceptively minimalistic and strangely voyeuristic — and thanks to Scarlett Johansson's entrancing performance, it's sure to get under your skin like no other film. Likewise, Mongrel Media's Blu-ray release will surely get under viewers' skins as well: with a thoroughly engrossing A/V presentation and a slate of insightful bonus features, Under the Skin on Blu-ray is a must-see, both for fans of Ms. Johansson or for those just on the prowl for an intriguing and truly unique piece of filmmaking.  Ben Mk

Disc Breakdown
The Film  —  
Audio/Visual Fidelity  —  
Special Features  —  

* Reviewer's note: Portions of this Blu-ray review were adapted from my original review of the theatrical release, published on May 9th, 2014.

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