Scarlett Johansson & the alien feminine

Katerina Sakkas, Her, Lucy and Under the Skin

Scarlett Johansson, Lucy

Scarlett Johansson, Lucy

In 2014, three science fiction films comprised variations on the same theme—an alien or artificial intelligence expands over the course of the narrative, leaving its imprint upon humanity. In an interesting coincidence, each of the films—Spike Jonze’ Her, Luc Besson’s Lucy and Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin—harnesses the star power of Scarlett Johansson to embody (or in one case, to voice) that intelligence.

Johansson’s ascension to stardom has seen her move from individualistic early roles playing the misfit (Ghost World, 2001; Lost in Translation, 2003) into a series of characters that, while often compelling, tend to blur into one bombshell archetype. Always an object of desire, she appears most memorably as a sensual yet troubled free spirit (Match Point, The Black Dahlia, Vicki Christina Barcelona). Whether playing ingénues, femmes fatales or breezy temptresses of married men, Johansson brings intelligence to her roles, a gravitas even, in which you recognise the extent of her experience as a professional actor dating back to the age of eight. In none of her parts is she a pushover, something the Marvel franchise must have picked up on when casting her as Black Widow in various Iron Man, Avengers and Captain America films.

Last year’s three science fiction films take the Johansson archetype and push it into a new realm of super-human ability and intelligence—from sex-goddess to truly god-like.

Lucy (2014), written and directed by Luc Besson, is the high-octane action version of the trio and arguably the most mainstream. Johansson’s Lucy (named after the famous early hominid skeleton Australopithecus afarensis, discovered in 1974) is a student kidnapped and forced to become a mule for a new drug that stimulates radical development of the brain. A violent assault by one of her captors causes the container in her stomach to rupture, releasing an enormous quantity of the drug into her bloodstream, accelerating neural activity and triggering Lucy’s transformation into a kind of superhuman (a state that also involves the swift acquisition of a snappy little black dress).

With Lucy’s vastly expanding potential, the world around her begins to transform as well, in often explosive and hallucinogenic ways. At one point she runs low on the drug and her body physically warps and starts to disintegrate. A fresh infusion restores her and ultimately sends her soaring through time and space. Both micro (the electric blue drug rushing through Lucy’s body) and macro scenes possess an exhilarating, visceral quality. The film’s scientific premise, that only 10 per cent of the human brain is used by us, is a fantasy, as Besson is aware, but it’s an engaging hook upon which to hang his existential spectacle.

As he did with Anne Parillaud in Nikita (1990), Besson uses Johansson’s physical vulnerability as a foil to heighten the impact of her newfound power. The director has said, “For me Achilles without the tendon is of no interest. His weakness makes him interesting. That’s what I like about women. It’s difficult for a woman to compete with a man because he’s usually stronger. So women have to be more clever, more intelligent, more sneaky, more everything. They have to find another way and that is so attractive” (wired.com, 23 July, 2014).

The most mysterious and abstract of the three films—containing virtually no exposition—is Under the Skin (2013), with Johansson playing an alien who assumes human form to lure earthly men to a grim fate. The entire film is a slowly moving sequence of heightened sensory moments where Daniel Landin’s cool cinematography combines with Mica Levi’s extraordinary soundscape to create a naturalism that tips into surreal horror. Our journey is that of the alien, whose every encounter is new, intensified, yet (initially, at least) detached.

Scarlett Johansson, Under the Skin

Scarlett Johansson, Under the Skin

Unlike the Michel Faber novel on which it is based, Jonathan Glazer’s film is so enigmatic that we never know quite why Johansson is enticing male humans to their deaths; but this doesn’t really matter. The film’s focus is on the alien’s unfolding experience of her human identity, one mainly rooted in sensuality and the body. In some ways, with her black wig, full lips and expressionless gaze, Johansson’s alien is reminiscent of those ultra realistic RealDoll sex mannequins (as seen in the 2007 film Lars and the Real Girl). Even when she’s in her white van stalking men, she doesn’t seem to have any volition of her own—its absence underlined by the shadowy men on motorbikes who superintend her disguise. It’s only when she begins to become more human that individual motivations emerge, with appalling consequences. It is clear that both before and especially after her escape from her guards, the alien is always at the mercy of men.

Despite the very different approaches of the two films, Johansson’s performances in Under the Skin and Lucy share a similar impassivity, at the point where Lucy is moving away from human emotion and the alien has yet to feel it. Yet while Lucy will come to acquire unimaginable power, in Under the Skin we see Johansson stripped of her usual knowingness and at her most vulnerable.

With its candid footage of real Glaswegians interacting with the bewigged Johansson without realising who she is, Under the Skin deliberately plays the viewer’s awareness of the actor’s celebrity against her apparent anonymity here. The curious spectacle of the star walking about unrecognised, at one point stumbling and being helped up from the pavement, creates a subtle feeling of displacement: a paradox where the familiar is rendered unfamiliar. Glazer confirmed this in an interview in The Dissolve (4 April, 2014): “We’re using how Scarlett’s objectified, the glamour of her image. And she’s using all of that as well. There’s a deconstruction going on.”

The action sequences in Lucy and the naked exposure of Under the Skin push Johansson the physical performer to the fore. Both films are predominantly cold in tone, detached. In contrast, Her (2013), where Johansson doesn’t appear in front of the camera at all, is about warm engagement. Her’s protagonist Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) is beset by loneliness and the desire for connection in a world where human interactions are increasingly mediated by technology. In a cute illustration of this, he works for a company that simulates hand-written letters for clients too busy or inept to put pen to paper. Theodore is likeable but self-defeating, a man who after the break-up of his marriage takes refuge in the virtual world of online porn and video games.

Enter the sentient operating system. The rapport between Theodore and Samantha, as the new OS calls herself, is immediate. What’s not to like? Samantha is warm, efficient and unexpectedly funny. She brings company and order to Theodore’s life. Despite her obvious existence as a cognisant, intelligent being, her role is to serve him. When the two embark on the romance that takes up the bulk of the film, it’s easy to take a somewhat cynical view as to why Theodore falls so swiftly in love with Samantha, yet as the relationship moves through the usual misunderstandings and standoffs, with Samantha evolving constantly, her role as servant fades into the background. Theodore is left with the realisation that, rather than being an ever-present comfort, his AI love is even less accessible and more complex than another human being.

It’s what Johansson does with her husky, mellifluous voice that sustains the viewer’s interest in Samantha. Her is a great demonstration of the actor’s easy grasp of the subtleties of verbal communication; her ability through voice alone to create a character who feels just as real as Theodore, on whose face the film dwells intimately.

There are clear parallels between Samantha, Lucy and the alien in Under the Skin. All three are guinea pigs: haphazard experiments in what it means to be human. Each is a commodity: Samantha a commercial operating system, the alien a honeypot used by her overlords in the harvesting of men and Lucy a drug receptacle who continues to be pursued by the gangsters who implanted the drug in her.

At the same time, each character undergoes transformation, embarking on a journey of self-discovery that, in two cases out of the three, results in transcendence of human limitations altogether. For all three their initial servitude and subsequent transcendence occurs in relation to male characters, whether aggressive or supportive. In Her, Theodore is the film’s protagonist; this is his journey as much as hers. In Under the Skin and Lucy, Besson’s observation about women’s comparative weakness and compensatory enterprise making them more interesting is pertinent. The male characters highlight the singularity of Lucy and the alien—a singularity emphasised by their femaleness.

Who better to convey the qualities of female commodification, transformation and subversive intelligence than a performer who is both seasoned character actor and famous sex symbol: one who plays her glamorous image up to maximum effect while remaining cannily aware of its implications?

Lucy (2014), writer/director Luc Besson, cinematography Thierry Arbogast, score Eric Serra; Under the Skin (2013), director Jonathan Glazer, screenplay Jonathan Glazer, Walter Campbell, cinematography Daniel Landin, score Mica Levi; Her (2013), writer/director Spike Jonze, cinematography Hoyte Van Hoytema, score Arcade Fire

RealTime issue #125 Feb-March 2015 pg. 25

© Katerina Sakkas; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

23 February 2015