Original Review by Alan RogersUnder The Skin

Jonathan Glaser’s science-fiction drama, Under The Skin, stars Scarlett Johansson as a mysterious woman, a extra-terrestrial who prowls the streets of Glasgow in a white van, picking up men (once she’s made sure that they are alone) and taking them back to her derelict lair where they then meet their strange fate. However, as the film progresses, we watch as her constant immersion in and observation of the everyday life of humanity, weakens her singular focus on her predatory purpose. A chance encounter with a disfigured man awakens an embryonic compassion, putting her own existence at risk. Under The Skin has divided both critics and audiences alike, with many of the negative comments being that the film is minimally explained, is “tedious”, “slow” and that nothing much happens. The film does have a slow pace to it, with lot of shots where the camera lingers a lot longer than you would expect and, if you examine the story closely, there’s not much of an actual plot.  However, along with many others though, a lot of these same properties are part of what makes the film such a winner. Under The Skin is an excellent and engaging film, full of dark and unsettling imagery where the director’s level of realism draws the viewer into the story. Glaser does an excellent job at capturing the ordinariness of urban life, a life surely recognisable to many at some level (everyone sees white Transit vans and derelict buildings but they are anonymous, anything could be happening behind these faceless facades). Often the film feels like a fly-on-the-wall documentary and part of that feel is down to the use of music.

The score for Under The Skin is written by British singer/songwriter Mica Levi, who is probably known for her band Micachu & The Shapes and their own somewhat experimental style of music. The group recently collaborated with The London Sinfonietta (2011) to create an album that has echoes with the music written for Under The Skin. This is Levi’s first film score and is one of the most accomplished scores of 2014, already winning its first award (European Composer 2014 for Levi from the European Film Academy). Just as challenging as the film for which it was written, Levi’s score – featuring live strings (particularly viola), MIDI synth strings and percussion – sounds very much an ambient score, full of repetitive percussion, scraping strings and buzzing sounds which border on moving away from music to sound effect. On first listening, there does appear to be some kind of structure to the music but the meaning – if any – seems unclear. However, digging deeper into the score itself (including reading about the ideas behind the various ideas used), what emerges is a complex and carefully thought out score using a number of motifs written for key aspects the film is trying to address.

For the opening 20-25 minutes of the score, the music is dominated by four recurring devices, all related to the forces that drive Johansson’s character to do what she does and to how she goes about preying on her victims. The score opens with “Creation” which plays over the opening scene of the film, where we see a semi-abstract 2001: A Space Odyssey-inspired sequence that is presumably linked to the creation of Johansson’s human form. We hear immediately two of the main motifs of the score. A processed cymbals tone is heard which acts as a constant, persistent and little-varied backdrop or musical landscape over which the various other motifs are laid. Agitated tremolo strings then appear. Numerous instruments (violins, cellos, violas) play these tremolos, each one slightly different in feel and they are played in such a way that the overall feeling you take away is akin to how feel when you watch an ant or bee colonies and how they scurry around: the motif instils a sense that there’s a clear purpose to things and gives an impetus to what’s happening. These tremolo strings effectively captures the essence of Johansson’s extra-terrestrial species, suggesting both the instinctive motivation behind her actions but also perhaps the implied characteristics of the alien race itself and the civilisation she belongs to. These two motifs are particularly prominent when we see the motorcyclist “minders” (assumed to be aliens also) and whose role seems to be to clear up any loose ends to keep the alien presence secret (“Creation”, “Lonely Void”).

The second album track, “Lipstick To Void”, features two more key motifs that are heard early in the film. There’s a lumbering and relentless drum/percussion rhythm that plays whenever the alien becomes the predator, echoing the hunger she feels for the men she’s stalking. There’s also a 3-note motif in the strings (particularly the viola), a seductive theme that signals the process of ensnaring her victims. Both these thematic motifs are specifically associated with the woman herself (rather than the alien species as a whole) and they tend not to appear until she’s ready to go off hunting. This second album track is a summary of what follows for the remaining cues that accompany the first part of the film. In these cues, these motifs are used in a variety of combinations (up to and including “Lonely Void”) and summarise the whole process of singling out victims and leading them to their doom. Although these devices are used repeatedly and for a significant length of time in the opening part of the film, there is variety. This variation is achieved through altering how these motifs are played and by having them appearing or disappearing at key moments in the film. For example, the sinewy seduction theme on strings starts hesitatingly in “Lipstick To Void”. Fragments of the motif take time to establish themselves until it’s presented in its final, confident form. The careful playing around of the theme in this way helps to reflect that the alien is perhaps finding her feet in, what is to her, this alien world. Towards the end of the cue, once she has gotten accustomed to the situation and her various “tools of the trade”, this theme strong, almost fevered. This theme (along with the other three devices mentions) stop suddenly when the victims disappear beneath the surface of the oily pool. As touched on earlier, during the course of the film, the alien’s attitude to humans seems to soften and she begins to exhibit some compassion towards them. Her encounter with a disfigured man throws these conflicting feelings into sharp relief for her. And this is reflected in when the music appears. Unlike previous victims, when she picks up the disfigured man we don’t hear any seduction theme nor do we hear the hunger of the insistent drum beat. It’s not until the disfigured man touches Johansson’s face (where we hear first a downward pitch bend in the low strings, a “now I’ve got you” moment (“Lipstick To Void” offers another example)) that we start to hear these predatory motifs and her instinct kick in – despite, perhaps, her increasing efforts to suppress these feelings. It’s interesting to note that in this track, “Lonely Void”, the cue begins with a downward pitch-bend in low strings at the moment the man touches Johansson’s face before the predatory motifs. This glissando seems to correspond to the inevitability of the fate of the victim (it’s also heard during the ensnaring of an earlier victim (“Lipstick To Void”)).

These empathic feelings towards humans seems to be echoed in the score by a final prominent motif. This is a (relatively) warm wash of strings that emerges from the darkness of the rest of the score as the briefest flash of brightness. There are hints of this motif highlighting the alien’s early change from being the out-and-out predator to feeling an empathy with human in the track “Drift”. Warm string chords begin to emerge after Johansson’s character is helped to her feet after a fall, highlighting a trigger point for her to question her own nature. There’s still a sense of her underlying alien instinct in these strings though – the presence of a low string chord under the warmer strings together with the low strings’ constant tone (reminiscent of the cymbals motif) reinforce the fact that the alien presence is still influential. Later in the film, when events have forced her to flee her alien existence (this includes her minders and Levi’s alien motifs) to the relative safety of the house of a guy who has picked her up (but this time to help her), there’s still a level of the alien in these lighter strings (“Bedroom”). It’s not until “Love” that we hear the warm strings motif in its purest form. A chorus of strings envelope the scene of Johansson’s character trying to embrace the human life through an ultimately failed attempt at physical contact. It’s interesting to note also Levi’s decision to use MIDI strings for the moment when, perhaps, Johansson’s character seems most human. It’s a stark contrast to the live strings that are used for the seduction theme; i.e., when Johansson’s character is at her most alien).

By the time of the final act of the film arrives, Johansson’s character has fled all contact, her attempt to adopt a human lifestyle in ruins. In “Death” the predatory themes of the 3-note motif and the insistent drum beat are back but now they seem to be have been transferred to a human. A man who stalks Johansson’s character and attempts to rape her. In the final few moments of the film, the themes momentarily transfer back to the alien and one by one they weaken and die away as the alien itself perishes. The album closes with “Alien Loop”, a 7-minute end credits suite of some of the motifs heard in the film.

The score for Under The Skin is thoroughly recommended but, as with the film, it’s definitely not going to be for everyone. The score itself is very sparse, containing no grand themes. But the score is populated by a number of motifs that are used to great effect to develop the story and illustrate a lot of what is unseen on screen. And I found them immediately appealing and intriguing when I heard them the album. Because of the film’s very limited release, it was the music that I came across first. The whole sound was a refreshing and intriguing change from the majority of what else was about. Under The Skin is an example a score that, when I heard it, I immediately want to see the film to hear the music in context and try to understand better how the music works. Doing a bit of research to try and understand the reasons behind the various parts of the score was definitely helpful to appreciating the music. This score is another example to why composers (and labels) should spent a bit of time providing some explanatory notes with release such as this to help enhance the listening experience further. Levi’s score is one of the strongest of 2014 and, although it doesn’t seem to have many of the qualities to attract the attention of the Academy, I will not be surprised if it receives an Academy Award nomination. Under The Skin is available on Spotify and can be purchased at the usual online digital stores as well as being available on CD. Audio clips can be found HERE.

Rating: **** ½

  1. Creation (2:46)
  2. Lipstick To Void (6:41)
  3. Andrew Void (2:14)
  4. Meat To Maths (2:00)
  5. Drift (6:58)
  6. Lonely Void (3:38)
  7. Mirror To Vortex (2:35)
  8. Bedroom (1:30)
  9. Love (5:10)
  10. Bothy (1:22)
  11. Death (4:39)
  12. Alien Loop (7:20)

Running Time: 46:58

Éditions Milan Music (2014)


  1. Really good review of this difficult score. I Loved it and the film from the onset but don’t think I could have attempted to write a review. Your review is exceptionally detailed and helped me understand it much better.

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