6 Reasons Why “Under the Skin” is an Underrated Masterpiece

4. Innovative Dissociative Score and Soundscape

If visual logic is the film’s primary tool to connect its narrative tissues, the sound design and score is what enhances, and oftentimes creates the bulk of Under the Skin’s unsettling mood and atmospheric overtones.

Perhaps the most innovative aspect of this modern sci-fi film, Johnnie Burn’s hyper realistic sound design and composer Mica Levi’s unnerving, yet character driven musical compositions not only blend in a unison, but thrive on their use of silence and counter-intuition to create a unique, otherworldly experience.

Under the Skin’s soundscape stands out from other films not only for its bizarre, silence embracing sound design, but also for its realistically immersive quality, by including sounds that are usually edited out of in films: bangs, vehicles, distant voices, among others. But how does a sci-fi film aim to have sound more accurate to reality than films that are completely based on “reality”?

Sound designer Burn (The Lobster; The Killing of a Sacred Deer) accomplished this through two main efforts: implanting sound recorders in Scarlett’s van to cover her random encounters with pedestrians and building the sound design from an extensive 2500 hours of sound recorded in Glasgow’s city life. The more immersive reality is, the more alien Scarlett becomes to her environment.

Burn contributes to the otherworldly experience through counter-intuition, using perception to subvert preconceptions of objects’ reactions to their environment. Returning to the image of the male victim (the dance club man) entrapped in the abyssal waters, rather than settle for the diegetic sound of water, Burn and Glazer used silent sound, a bottled spaced sound reminiscent to that of putting your ear close to a seashell, all in order to create an alienating, eerie effect, emphasizing the sight of the victim’s dissection. Moreover, Burn uses the sound of ripping of dry leaves and a tray of rice to simulate the victim’s skin’s abrupt folding.

Controversial among viewers, Levi’s Ligeti-inspired compositions (Jackie) are meticulously patterned, microtonal, and consistently stress inducing. For instance, the theme that plays to Scarlett’s lure of the soon-to-be victims, referred to by Levi and the crew as the “capture” melody, is a prime example of her contribution to Under the Skin.

Cryptic, extremely seductive, and purposely superficial, the rough stringed “capture” theme is not only a metalinguistic representation of Scarlett’s use of seduction and expectation to enthrall male strangers, but it also mirrors her inner transition towards human emotion.

Initially avoiding uniformity to create anxiety, Levi pushes this rejection further as the film progresses, by adding warmer, melancholic chords and minor triads to “capture” theme’s original main triad in order for its tune to become expressive of Scarlett’s confusion and emotional rift. In this manner, both the sound design and score underline the perception, and introspective stages of Scarlet’s subjective point-of-view towards the outside world.


5. Blends Sci-fi and Documentary

In many ways, Under the Skin is paradoxical in that it derives its notion of unfamiliarity from its close proximity to realism. Through techniques traditional to documentary filmmaking, it shares verisimilitude to Glasgow’s daily life – the civilians’ accent, unaltered cityscape, trivial particularities such as common nightlife, civilians sitting on benches or talking on phones – are all included in the city’s portrayal.

However, regardless of whether or not the viewer is already acquainted with Glasgow, the environment is alienating, otherworldly, because Glazer uses Scarlett’s perspective as the sole vehicle through which he anchors the viewer’s point-of-view.

Speaking of the documentary angle, most of the scenes where Scarlett drove and spoke to male civilians were actually real and unscripted. Glazer had his team implant cameras – One Cam, a small camera that fits 16 mm lenses – and sound recorders in the van in order to capture the civilians’ genuine reactions as well as accent.

Furthermore, by (1) employing a cast comprised of mostly non-actors, (2) shooting on real location with only augments in street lights and sodium lights; bare minimum alteration, (3) footage of civilians and restraining the camera-subject distance to medium and long shots, and (4) going to extensive measures to record audio incognito such as using an umbrella with a hidden microphone, Glazer captures Glasgow as accurately as possible in order to maximize the effect of disassociation between Scarlett and what “should” be a familiar environment.

The conceptual, pitch-black liquid scenes do not provoke the same level of alienation and disassociation as these seemingly realistic scenes do. In many ways, the viewer remains inside the van with Scarlett, observing the outside world from far away.


6. The Exploration and Multidimensionality of Sexuality

Few films in the last decade explore sexuality with the same level of depth and malleability in multidisciplinary interpretations as Under the Skin. Feminist, Gender schema, and Queer theory are all applicable to Glazer’s sci-fi tale of sexual identity. However, for purposes of the discussion, we will focus solely on Scarlett’s sexual-psychological journey.

In Under the Skin, the theme of sexuality mirrors that of the unknowingness of human nature. Sexuality is unveiled as dangerous, but also crucial to self-discovery, it can be accessorized against others, as well as become a risk. As the viewer might notice, the film does not venture to specify, but it is closest to certainty through glimpses into Scarlett’s sexuality.

Scarlett becomes appropriated of her sexual identity while contemplating herself in a mirror. A purely intimate scene, Scarlett naively explores her joints, and articulates her body in new, asymmetrical shapes that were absent in previous scenes. Perhaps not biologically as the viewer would discover during the sexual intercourse scene, but Scarlett is successful in crossing the bridge between simulation to assimilation by identifying herself as a woman.

The title being a linguistic clue itself, from the start Under the Skin is strongly suggestive of the idea of layering – clothing, cosmetics, and the actual skin – as the tool of impersonation. Scarlett’s rule of thumb is to uncover, and fashion herself after that which her potential male victims find desirable.

Whereas the flirtations, conversations, personal questions, are minimum as well as superficial, it is the implications of her behavior, as it is evident when she drops clothing items as crumbs, which the enthralled men follow without question unaware that they are sinking in black liquid.

Furthermore, clothing plays a crucial role in the film, conveying visual cues of Scarlett’s self-image. During the seductive pursuits of her mission, Scarlett uses a fur coat, symbolizing a perfume, her sexual prowess, whereas she switches to a pink top after her encounter with neurofibromatosis individual, which not only offers little warmth, but its striking color against the greyish environment is suggestive of her cultural misplacement as well as helplessness. Moreover, is in this phase where Scarlett moves away from the simulated seducer towards a more intimate, introspection of herself as a female.

It is impossible to deny the allegorical references of the final setting – the vast forest, the bothy, the rapist, Scarlett’s jacket, and her immolation – yet it has numerous interpretations. It does not only present an absolute subversion of hunter-prey dynamics with the logger as “Scarlett” and the female alien as the helpless prey, it also epitomizes the ontological idea of layering as being.

Before the logger gives up his attempted rape and attempts to immolate her, we are showed an iconic image: a dark, featureless body staring and holding “Scarlett’s” face in her hands. Is the film a cautionary tale of the dangers of sexuality? Are appearances a state of being? Is female sexuality a casualty in men’s search for immediate pleasure? Is Scarlett’s appropriation of her image superfluous to the human consciousness that should lie underneath?