Under the Skin
- Current Status
- In Season
- Samantha Morton, Claire Rushbrook
Just about every year, brilliant movies are utterly ignored by the Oscars. The Searchers, Groundhog Day, Breathless, King Kong, Casino Royale, Touch of Evil, Caddyshack, Mean Streets, The Big Lebowski, Blackfish — the Academy has a long history of overlooking comedies, action movies, horror flicks, hard-boiled genre pics, artsy foreign films, and documentaries that aren’t about World War II. Before the ceremony, we’ll be taking a closer look at films that were too small, too weird, or perhaps simply too awesome for the Academy Awards. These are the Non-Nominees.
The film: In Jonathan Glazer’s artsy adaptation of Michel Faber’s novel, an alien in human form (Scarlett Johansson) comes to earth and preys on unsuspecting Scottish men, luring them to their death—by seduction.
Why it wasn’t nominated: Under The Skin marked Glazer’s return to filmmaking after more than a decade, though his choice to make his comeback with this particular story isn’t all that surprising. The filmmaker’s previous works, Sexy Beast (an arthouse crime drama) and Birth (a bleak Nicole Kidman-fronted tale), were also heavy experimental—and while that’s the main similarity between Under The Skin and Glazer’s earlier projects, those previous films were also intense, well-written pieces that never found large audiences.
Under The Skin’s absence from the Oscar race certainly can’t be blamed on its critical reception. It garnered highly positive reviews, with IndieWire calling it “the best film we’ve seen in years” and Variety naming it among this year’s most deserving Oscar contenders. You could argue that maybe nobody outside of critical circles saw it, but Under The Skin did gross over $2 million in just 176 theaters—not bad for an indie film. It was also honored with a 2014 Gotham Award nomination which, while not a precursor to the Oscars in the way the Globes and SAGs are, is a recognition that still carries some weight.
So why was it left off the list? There are a number of possibilities, including the curse of an early release (Skin played at the Venice Film Festival and Toronto Film Festival before hitting a limited number of theaters in April). It’s also common knowledge that, with few exceptions, voters generally look down upon science fiction films—even though Under The Skin barely passes as sci-fi, instead rooting itself closer to horror. (Granted, another category that hasn’t done well at the awards recently.) Perhaps the most glaring reason for its omission is that despite Johansson’s haunting performance and the film’s technical beauty, Glazer’s spellbinding, Kubreckian exploration of the human mind was just too weird for the Academy to consider.
Why history will remember it better than the academy did: Under The Skin is a strange film in every way, from its music to its directing to its characters. It has disturbing scenes, and confusing scenes—two in particular are so polarizing that they’ll push away some viewers entirely—but intriguing scenes as well. It’s the sort of film that sticks in our memories because of how singular it is—even its most upsetting images are evocative and mesmerizing. Under The Skin forces viewers to think about life and relationships in ways that they’d never considered before, and Mica Levi’s eerie score complements a dark, chilling atmosphere that is essential for immersing us in Glazer’s story.
Of course, you can’t talk about why this film will be remembered without talking about its singular driving force: Scarlett Johansson. (And yes, some people will remember this movie purely as “the one where Scarlett Johansson gets pretty darn naked.”) Under The Skin built on the actress’s growing momentum, becoming yet another example of Johansson’s mesmerizing screen presence in a period flush with them (Don Jon, Her, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Lucy.) Despite the fact that she consistently does incredible work, Johansson has yet to be considered for an Oscar. What’s a woman gotta do in order to merit some overdue love?
To say that Johansson gives one of the best performances of her career here would be an understatement. In Her, Johansson had to seduce us using just her voice; Under The Skin explored her talent in the opposite way. As its alien protagonist, Johansson delivers few spoken lines, forcing us to rely largely on her facial expressions and movements to follow what can, at times, be a confusing story. Johansson shows us the world through the eyes of someone experiencing it for the first time; we watch her morph from a drone-like, Terminator-bred personality into someone who learns what it means to feel human. We watch her discover the feelings and emotions that make up who we are—and, in turn, we understand the evolution of her character. It’s an unorthodox coming-of-age story, a sort of sped-up, extraterrestrial Boyhood—and it’s safe to say that with a less competent actor on board, Under The Skin would have failed altogether.
After almost two hours immersed in Glazer’s world, you’ll want to peel back its layers to see what you might’ve missed while soaking everything up the first time around. And while Johansson should have gotten recognition for her work here, it’s also a shame that the Academy didn’t honor the technical aspects that made Under The Skin so compelling. Sure, the movie may have been a bit out there—but it’s not like the Academy hasn’t ever given obscure, otherworldly movies a shot at the golden statue. And if any movie fit that bill this year, Under The Skin was it.