Saturday, December 20, 2014

"Lucy" and "Under the Skin"

I never would have guessed at the beginning of the year that one of the biggest names in science-fiction films would be Scarlett Johanssen. She's starred in no less than four genre films that made a big impact in 2014: "Her," "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," "Under the Skin," and "Lucy." I thought I'd take a little time here and talk about the last two.

"Lucy" was a particularly noteworthy title because it topped the box office based on little more than her star power coupled with a nutty, high-concept science-fiction premise. Director Luc Besson's had a rocky track record lately, mostly telling and retelling stories of aging hit-men trying to hold dysfunctional families together. There are certainly antecedents in Besson's work for "Lucy," including his celebrated "La Femme Nikita" and the more recent "Columbiana," but it's been a long time since Besson has worked with this kind of protagonist and such an out-and-out fantastic premise. Scarlett Johanssen plays the titular Lucy, an American party-girl who is roped into becoming a drug mule, and gains superpowers when the drugs in question allows her brain to operate at higher and higher percentages of its capacity.

There's a nice simplicity to "Lucy." Though it's billed as an action film, the fisticuffs are really only a stepping stone to get us invested into the transformation of the main character from an ordinary woman to, essentially, a god. Besson is having a lot of fun here, framing the story like a nature documentary, with explanatory narration provided by Morgan Freeman's professor character, and occasional intercutting with wildlife footage so we can draw parallels. The appeals to science are utterly ludicrous, of course, but as a storytelling device it's very effective. Though "Lucy" became more and more outlandish the longer it went on, I enjoyed it thoroughly. Johanssen doesn't have much to work with, but she manages to avoid the Barbie-doll badass cliches and give Lucy a few poignant moments as her humanity gradually slips away. The visuals are trippy and a lot of fun. And Choi Min-Sik plays the bad guy, because, well, why not? Though we root for Lucy to use all of her brain, the movie requires the audience to leave theirs at the door. And that's okay.

If you're looking for headier, more thoughtful science-fiction fare, look no further than "Under the Skin," a chilling, atmospheric tale of two alien visitors who disguise themselves as human beings with stolen bodies. Their objectives are unknown, but it involves luring and capture of human beings by one of the aliens, using the body of a beautiful woman played by Scarlett Johanssen. Little exposition is used, and the aliens are largely non-verbal when they're not interacting directly with humans, so we can only glean their intentions through their actions and behavior. We follow the nameless alien in Johanssen's skin as it looks for victims. We see how its interactions with various men play out, and how its behavior starts to change. Initially cold, emotionless, and predatory, the continued exposure to Earth and its inhabitants creates attachment, and eventually new feelings and wants in the mysterious creature. No cinematic alien being has been so compelling in ages.

Director and co-writer Jonathan Glazer allows "Under the Skin" to unfold slowly, to reveal its horrors and its wonders incrementally. His goal is to establish a mood as much as it is to tell a story, and so there are lengthy, sinister shots of unidentified objects of possibly alien origin, and a long sequence shot with a dashcam where the Johanssen alien is posing as a lost tourist, driving through the darkened streets of Glasgow. The natural world plays a big part here, the rocky seashore heightening the cruelty of a tragedy that occurs in the waves, and a tranquil forest of snow-landen trees emphasizing the loneliness and isolation of our main character. Then there's Mica Levi's score, an extraordinary electronic thing full of lulling rhythms and pregnant pauses.

And Johanssen? She gives one of my favorite performances of the year, one that is largely physical in contrast to her work in "Her," which was limited to her voice. Where Lucy lost her humanity, the alien visitor gains a semblance of it, and "Under the Skin" allows that transformation to be a far more harrowing and soulful one. Johanssen's ascension to the A-list has been gradual, but very rewarding to see. And I hope she keeps picking more great genre roles in the future.

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