Collingswood Cinema Society founder Robert Castle takes a look at three recent ScarJo films that explore the de-humanizing aspects of an increasingly digital world.
By Robert Castle
The all-reaching potential, influence, and power of the digital universe has become a familiar theme in television and movie dramas. Why not? The last 10 to 15 years has seen so much cyber-growth that it has become the foreground of our world.
The problematic qualities of this social commitment to virtual reality via social media has been uniquely dramatized in three recent films—Her (2013), Under the Skin (2013), and Lucy (2014)—all of them starring Scarlett Johansson.
Lucy garnered the best box-office and worst critical reactions of the three, its detractors seemingly inoculated against the accelerating rhythms of its plot and violence, and uninterested in going along for the philosophical ride.
Her might be the ‘art circuit’ version of a Lucy-like hit. It made modest money for an art film, thanks to the following its director Spike Jonze commands and an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. The awards also flushed out potential-but-reluctant viewers, however; maybe more people would have paid to see Her if they could have seen her (Johansson).
Few people saw Under the Skin, by Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast and Birth), nor did many who watched it fully figure out what Johansson’s character was doing in it. The film excited many critics, however, by revealing as little as possible in terms of explanation—the very approach that bores general audiences.
In their tackling of questions related to humanity and technology, all three films revolve around the orbit of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and each, in its own way, reflects the particular light 2001 throws on them.
Any futuristic movie scenario must deal with 2001, perhaps. Her and Lucy have satiric elements that track closely to 2001’s take on technology: exploring how the wonders of space travel and futuristic technology are bound to their deleterious effects; primarily, the deadening of the human soul.
Under the Skin
Under the Skin holds up the best of these three as a metaphor for the all-encompassing nature of the digital world. In it, Johansson’s unnamed Female lures men to her Glasgow home with an implicit promise of sexual gratification. Inside, they track toward her until they are submerged into the black floor. Once, we are allowed to watch a man under the floor, floating around, eventually spotting another who appears flattened out.
Men sinking into a void that disappears them: what better analogy for the expansive digital world in which we now find ourselves soon losing definition and becoming unidentifiable. We are guided to this state by a force we cannot resist, not even as it consumes us; literally de-humanizes us. Under the Skin recognizes that what seemed inevitable, if not a duty, has turned into a skeptical agency.
Why The Female wants them is never stated. She appears bent on depopulating Glasgow, Scotland of its predatory men. Yet, she begins to change, seemingly excited by her attractiveness. The tipping point occurs when she picks up a physically-impaired man who responds to her not quite like the others, and he is spared.
Inevitably, the music and cinematography of Under the Skin have evoked comparisons to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Both films set up a premise of aliens coming to Earth with a large, unstated mission. We have to assume the monolith left among the apes was done to effect something, but its mission is unknown—curiosity? A helping hand? Johansson’s alien doesn’t start with the helping hand, but her changing attitude could sabotage the mission.
Kubrick initially discussed an explanation for the monolith; we are left, however, with only an assumption that it was “deliberately placed there.” Astronaut Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) ending up in an 18th century French bedroom with the monolith re-appearing at the foot of his bed also goes unexplained. Our desire to know, to have an (the) answer, is frustrated.
What The Female in Under the Skin is trying to accomplish, we’re never told; however, withholding this information sharpens the viewer’s attention just to get some clue regarding her actions. The film’s reluctance to inform us is palpable and, finally, emphasizes the changes happening to Johansson’s character. Like 2001, Under the Skin employs little dialogue in its telling, further increasing our frustration.
Lucy and Her
Lucy and Her also evoke 2001: A Space Odyssey in their treatments of super-intelligence and self-awareness as fueling the will to power. Lucy ingests drugs that give her a limitless consciousness reminiscent of that of H.A.L.-9000, the berserk artificial intelligence from 2001.
When her brain reaches 100 percent capacity, she metamorphoses into a computer stick, and subsequently melds with every digital device in the world, conjuring up the image of the Space Child at the end of 2001, hovering above Earth, contemplating its next move. When these films reach their glorious, digital apotheoses, we share a sense of triumph with Johansson’s characters
As Samantha in Her, Johansson’s voice approaches the iconic voice of H.A.L. (Douglas Rain) in 2001. Stanley Kubrick had chosen Rain for his neutral tone (rejecting Martin Balsam’s voice); Spike Jonze had Samantha Morton do the voice for the entire filming of Her but began to have doubts in post-production and decided to use Johansson. What we think of as destiny or inevitability often comes by chance and coincidence.
I’d like to believe the choices made to cast Johansson in each of thee films is intriguingly linked, perhaps as an integrated commentary on the virtualized world we are experiencing today. This triad in these films dramatizes this struggle, especially through Johansson’s dehumanized characters: an alien, a computer voice, and a woman becoming “an advanced machine.”
What will it take for contemporary humans to become more empathetic and produce more sincere emotions? Good science fiction provides interesting and profound ways to experience real feelings with authenticity.
Collingswood resident Robert Castle is an author, teacher, film critic, and playwright. In town, he is also the founder of the Collingswood Movie Club (now called the Collingswood Cinema Society), which meets monthly in the public library for film showings and discussion.
Castle’s writing has appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal, Film Comment, and The Film Journal. His plays have been performed during the Philadelphia New Play Festival, the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, and at the the Gone in 60 Seconds and “In a New York Minute” festivals. He had written nine books, which are available at Amazon.com.