Being Human in Under the Skin and Her

29 April 2014 at 20:43 (Uncategorized) (, , )

Under the Skin may be my favorite film of 2014 so far, followed very closely behind by Her. In addition to the fact that both rely heavily upon stellar performances by Scarlett Johansson, each also explores similar themes, grappling with what it means to be human in terms of bodily experience as well as mental and moral awareness. While the characters Johansson depicts contrast one another dramatically, the conclusions drawn from their stories feel remarkably similar.

Rather than giving a ton of plot summary, I’ll let the trailers do the heavy lifting:

The key points to be gathered: In Her, Johansson is the voice of Samantha, an artificially intelligent operating system for the lonely Theodore. The two fall in love, despite the fact that they interact entirely through digital means. Ultimately, their relationship goes south as Samantha evolves beyond Theodore, reaching a state of transcendence impossible for Theodore to achieve.

Johansson’s alien character in Under the Skin similarly draws in lonely men but for a radically different purpose. She seduces the men with promises of sex that instead lead to their destruction. But similar to how Samantha’s consciousness shifts, so does the alien’s in Skin. After mercilessly capturing several unsuspecting male victims, she unexpectedly exhibits pity for one of the men she entraps. She then runs away and is taken in by another man. This man treats her hospitably, and in his care, she explores her body’s capacity to feel and perceive.

This shot is one of the few that represents Samantha visually in Her.

In many respects, the alien in Skin and Her’s Samantha represent polar opposites. While we hear Samantha and see digital messages from her, Johansson never embodies her. In fact, the lack of a body becomes a tension between her and Theodore, since Samantha insists on hiring a sex surrogate despite his resistance. By comparison, the alien in Skin uses her female body as her primary weapon. DP Daniel Lindin’s gorgeous cinematography plays with light and shadow to accentuate Johansson’s physical presence while the dearth of dialog gives her fewer opportunities to showcase her husky voice. In other words, we mostly see Johansson in Skin and only hear her in Her.

Promotional still from Under the Skin.

For both films, though, the body becomes an important symbol of the pleasures, pains, and limitations of humanity. After the sex surrogacy fail, Samantha concludes that while she may lack the ability to experience the physical pleasures of sex, that without a body she can also live without fear of pain or even death:

Samantha’s embrace of her inhuman capabilities gradually draws her away from Theodore and into the technological singularity, and as a result, distances herself from humanity. Skin’s protagonist experiences the opposite trajectory. As she begins to explore emotional and physical pleasures of being human, she abruptly collides with the violence and pain of it as well. The ending (which I will not describe–too big a spoiler) beautifully and horrifically captures the character’s fall embrace of her human skin, despite the mortality that accompanies it.

While the two films and Johansson’s performances each compellingly convey these very human dilemmas, reading the performances in tandem and as an extension of Johansson’s star persona make them all the more fascinating. Of late, Johansson has become the ultimate Hollywood sex symbol a la Marilyn Monroe. Some have lamented this turn in her work, but with with Skin and Her, Johansson seems to examine the cultivation of this image, since both Samantha and the alien are both tailored to the desires of a male audience, similar to Johansson herself. With each character resisting her purpose for existence, Johansson also signals an interest in at least temporarily stepping outside the boundaries of her own constructed image.

I would love to see Johansson’s work continue to evolve in this direction, but for now, both Under the Skin and Her reveal a depth to Johansson not seen since Lost in Translation. Like that film, these texts show audiences just how beautiful but limited human existence can be with a focus specifically on the body as a manifestation of that complexity.

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