Tag Archives: Under the Skin

Sci-fi and ScarJo: A winning combo

I’ve been impressed with Scarlett Johansson’s choice of science fiction roles, namely her starring turns in 2013’s Under the Skin and 2014’s Lucy. Not only is Johansson good in two solid films, the movies and Johansson’s roles couldn’t be more different.

I’ve gone into detail about my adoration for Under the Skin elsewhere, so I won’t focus much on it. I will note that Under the Skin is quiet, allowing the action and acting to lead, moving at a deliberate pace. Between straightforward, largely quiet scenes are dark, murky, abstract moments, all eventually leading to one helluva mind-fuck ending. It’s not a commercial flick by any means, with the exception of its star being part of the biggest comic book movie series on the planet.

In Lucy, from writer-director Luc Besson (director of La Femme Nikita and Leon: The Professional, as well as the producer behind the Taken flicks), Johannson plays the title character, a young woman looking to have a little fun in the Far East until she gets in over her head, carrying drugs for hardcore gangster, Mr. Chang (Min-Sik Choi of Oldboy and Lady Vengeance), who has killed her boyfriend and is threatening to kill others near and dear to her. The drugs, implanted in her body, leak, and said chemicals push her mind and body through about 5,000 years of evolution in 24 hours.

My guess is the science in this science fiction may not be so solid, as Lucy goes from your average human using about 10 percent of her brain to a superhuman pushing 100 percent capacity. But Besson does what Besson does: He pushes the action, whether that means interspersing lectures by expert Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman) with shots from nature and the universe, or the attack by Chang’s men against French police that is a hail of lead tearing apart a hallway, or Lucy literally trying to hold herself together as the effects of the drug wear off during a plane ride (see the video above). In defense of the science component, as Lucy evolves from bubbly blonde to being of pure data and energy, I began to think of Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001 series. Only Lucy manages to do in a couple of days what evolution took (hundreds of) millions of years to do in Clarke’s imagining. I’m not saying it’s accurate or likely, but Lucy fleetingly dwells on similar ideas about evolution and immortality, in between car chases and gunshots.

Johansson excels in two dissimilar roles. In Under the Skin, she is a predator, silently stalking her prey, focused solely on the hunt, until that unfortunate moment when she realizes she is just as vulnerable as the men she consuming. From that point, she goes from offense to defense, searching for a place to hide in a world she is unfamiliar with. In Lucy, Johansson goes from a happy-go-lucky young woman to an entity that is solely concerned with devouring information and processing that data to find an answer that might not even exist.

Lucy and Under the Skin are an interesting mix, and my hope is Johansson continues to look for science fiction roles. She certainly seems to have a knack for picking them.

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Peeling back the ‘Skin’

Creepy ScarJo? Welcome to "Under the Skin."

Creepy ScarJo? Welcome to “Under the Skin.”

In the late 1990s, when The Thin Red Line hit theaters, I happened to catch a viewing that was also attended by a number of WWII vets, some of whom had fought in the Far East. I followed them out of the theater, listening to their furious tones, red in the face at what they’d just seen. What was that? That wasn’t what the war was like! I was there, and that didn’t happen. And so on.

It’s a classic case of people getting into a movie they really know nothing about. The reviews at the time were very clear about how director Terrence Malick operated and continues to operate. He’s prone to voiceovers, eschewing dialogue if possible, more interested in the internal struggle than external relationships. He often focuses on the natural phenomenon amid the turmoil as well as the turmoil itself, lingering on vegetation and animals, slowly drifting from scene to scene. Malick’s films aren’t what I’d generally consider character or plot driven. More often, they are a meditation on a subject. The Thin Red Line isn’t Saving Private Ryan, and it was never meant to be. Malick just doesn’t operate like the majority of his fellow filmmakers. Which is fine, if you as a viewer know that’s the case heading in.

Know what this is? Let's just say you really, really don't want it happening to you.

Know what this is? Let’s just say you really, really don’t want it happening to you.

Warning: There be spoilers ahead.

I look back at this experience because I wonder how many male viewers picked up Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin with solely the thoughts “naked Scarlett Johansson alien” in their head. And while Under the Skin does deliver on that, it’s not an exploitative, Hollywood sci-fi film by any means. No mad scientist bent on destroying the world, no invasion of mean and angry insectoids from another universe, no monstrous sea creatures rising from the depths of the ocean to battle giant robots. I kind of wonder how many approached it as such, abandoned it in frustration and never made it to the end.

To me, the open-ended nature of the entire film, that space for interpretation, is what makes Under the Skin interesting. Like The Thin Red Line, there’s not much dialogue here. It’s a mix of a few very abstract scenes and a quiet Johansson on a journey of self discovery. At first she prowls city streets of Scotland in her white van (the irony that it is the classic “rape van” should not be lost here), people watching, searching for men, alone. There is constant motion, a rhythm to ScarJo’s movements, the actions of a shark seeking prey. But at one point, she starts to realize there is little difference between her and her prey, which changes everything. She goes from the beast on the prowl to the animal in hiding, a shift in attitude that ends up costing her.

Or maybe not. I mean, that’s what I walked away from it with, but I’m pretty sure you could ask five other people who watched Under the Skin and get five different answers. That’s what Glazer has constructed here, what he wants, a unique experience driven by the viewer’s own thoughts and prejudices. It’s not dissimilar to what directors like Malick, Stanley Kubrick, etc., have achieved before him.

Under the Skin isn’t for everyone, and it isn’t designed to be. But for those willing to buy the ticket and take the ride, it’s worth it.

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