There are spoilers in this review. You’ve been warned.
Scarlett Johansson has recently starred in two separate sci-fi movies: the surrealistic indie film Under The Skin, and the (relatively) mainstream Lucy. This week, I consumed an altogether unhealthy quantity of caffeine and watched both back-to-back. The following are my observations.
I started my ScarJo* binge with Under the Skin, which is unquestionably the more esoteric of the two. This was to prove a wise decision, if only because the movie left me in bad need of a pulpy cinematic palette-cleanser. The movie follows ScarJo’s unnamed character- who is probably an alien, certainly not human- as she drives through the cities and back roads of Scotland in an unmarked white van seeking male loners to seduce. Her unlucky victims are lured back to a dark void somehow contained within ScarJo’s dingy urban flat and submerged in a mysterious pool, wherein their internal organs are removed and liquefied for reasons unknown (Freud could have co-written this script). It is in these scenes that ScarJo reveals her skill at playing chillingly inhuman characters. We see her put on a seductive act to ensnare potential prey- chatting, smiling, laughing- and revert to a blank-faced cypher the moment they are out of sight. This flair for emotionless inhumanity will resurface in the next movie.
Eventually, she starts experiencing actual emotions and makes awkward attempts to become human- she tries (and fails) to eat human food; she tries (and fails) to form a non-predatory relationship with a mostly-well-intentioned human male. The ironic thing here is that the harder she tries to be a human, the less convincingly she is able to do so. Ultimately, ScarJo peels off her false skin, revealing her true form- a gaunt, black-skinned alien being. It gazes impassively down at its human mask, which continues to blink and emote. It would seem that all the emotional suffering she experienced throughout the second half of the movie was literally only skin deep. Then an evil lumberjack sets her on fire (um, spoiler).
Under the Skin is definitely an artistically good movie. The acting is top notch and the cinematography and droning score create a hypnotic atmosphere of menace and desolation. But I’m still not sure whether or not it’s a morally good movie. Any suspicion that ScarJo’s predatory character is intended as a misogynistic everywoman is undercut with shots of other (human) women which, seen through ScarJo’s eyes, reveal how alienated she is from literally everyone, male and female alike. Still, the movie culminates in a really hard-to-watch scene of sexual assault, and the intentions of the filmmaker are unclear.
Coming out of the gloomy world of the previous film, Lucy was refreshingly lightweight. Here, ScarJo’s titular character is a flaky American living in Taiwan who is roped into acting as drug-mule for a mysterious new psychoactive chemical. Lucy accidentally ingests a huge dose of the drug, which alters her brain and transforms her into a combination Tetsuo/Kwisatz Haderach. As she travels the globe developing ever-greater paranormal powers, she quickly sheds her humanity, becoming an alienated, unemotional (and suspiciously familiar) being. And then she turns into god (um, yeah spoiler).
Lucy is, quite frankly, a silly movie. It’s directed by Luc Besson, and as anyone who has seen The Fifth Element knows, Besson doesn’t do subtlety. As Lucy is lured into a dangerous situation early in the movie, the scene is inter-cut with footage of a mouse approaching a mousetrap and cheetahs stalking gazelles. Later on, when a character mentions the Milky Way galaxy in conversation, we are treated to a brief and totally extraneous CGI rendition of said galaxy. Stylistically, this is all well and good, but I cannot in good conscience recommend this movie to anyone who takes the “sci” in their sci-fi seriously. The whole film is predicated on the (erroneous) idea that humans only use 10% of their brains, and contains a staggering amount of faux scientific mumbo-jumbo. The worst offender here is Morgan Freeman’s character, a scientist whose main function in the movie is to deliver quasi-scientific lines so cringe-worthy that even he sounds embarrassed reciting them. Pro Tip: if MoFree can’t make a statement sound trustworthy, it might be time to revisit your script.
(As a side note- Freeman is a fantastic actor, but just once I’d like to see him play something other than a wise, avuncular mentor figure. I suspect he’d enjoy the opportunity, too.)
Taken in isolation, Lucy is a fun if mediocre sci-fi flick, and I might have written it off as such had I not just watched Under the Skin. However, as a pair the movies form a really interesting mirror image. In one, an inhuman entity starts to become human with tragic results; in the other, a human loses her humanity with glorious results. Both films ultimately paint humanity as a fragile, ephemeral state of being, and its alternative (inhumanity, post-humanity, whathaveyou) as a state of pristine equilibrium. There are even reasons to suspect that this symmetry is deliberate. In Lucy, the phrase “under the skin” is uttered pointedly, and as ScarJo begins her final apotheosis, her skin begins to turn pitch black, a la UtS. If we view these two movies as a unit (and my caffeine-addled mind says we should), the moral is clear: If you’re human, quit. If you’re not human, don’t start.
*it has come to my attention that Scarlett Johansson does not like being called ScarJo. This is absolutely understandable. I however am a lazy, lazy writer. ScarJo, I sincerely apologize.
Robin Latkovich lives in Cleveland and deals with humans on a semi-professional level. He thinks most of them are OK, given what they have to work with.