On ScarJo Sci-Fi
Spike Jonze (director). Her. 2013.
Jonathan Glazer (director). Under the Skin. 2013.
I first saw Her in the middle of the polar vortex. It was the middle of the day, and I was in the middle of a break-up. My soon-to-be-ex and I were on a trip to Chicago, and had some hours to kill before our flight home. At least this way, we wouldn’t be able to yell or weep or say the worst things. There is something excoriating about sitting in the dark next to someone you love, watching a movie about love, knowing both stories are going to end badly. At one point, I leaned over and whispered: “I’m just going to sit a couple of rows back, okay?” He nodded without looking at me. I took my coat and moved, trying not to cry. I watched the back of his head and, after a while, the film beyond it.
For months, I didn’t know how to describe the feeling of that day, tromping through snow, holding each other’s elbows to keep from slipping on ice, exchanging words about the movie to distract each other from the void opening up between us. Several months later, a bunch of friends dragged me out to see Under the Skin. I was still deep in the black hole of heartbreak, so I hadn’t heard of it and had no idea what sort of film I was walking into. It felt incredibly slow, its eeriness gradually building to a harrowing crescendo. I didn’t cry. But sitting once more in a dark theater, I recognized something about being a woman, about the sublimity and the grief of whatever it is that divides me from men.
It is not incidental that both films star Scarlett Johansson, our current epitome of womanliness. In Spike Jonze’s Her, Johansson is the voice of Samantha, a computer operating system who has gained sentience. In Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, a loose adaptation of Michael Faber’s 2000 novel, she plays an alien who wears a woman’s body. Johansson seems at first a curious fit for these two science-fiction films. Her physical presence — Woody Allen calls it “sexually overwhelming,” a “zaftig humidity” — is the polar opposite of the brittle muscularity of sci-fi heroines played by Sigourney Weaver or Linda Hamilton. But that’s exactly the point. Both these films pretend to be about science fiction — the anxiety of technology, the threat of the alien — but are really about the creation of a woman. Her makes a woman almost entirely out of Johansson’s voice. And Under the Skin makes a woman almost entirely out of her body.
The “almost” is crucial in both cases. In Her, our awareness of Johansson’s ubiquitous face and body hovers in back of the OS’s voice. And Johansson does occasionally speak in Under the Skin, though not quite in her own voice, affecting a passable British accent. We excuse this because she’s an alien. Glazer’s film opens with a sequence that at first seems like a shot of planets or spaceships aligning and gives way to the artificial construction of a human eye. This is accompanied by audio of the alien practicing human speech (apparently a recording of Johansson’s sessions with a dialogue coach). Scarlett becomes an alien becoming a human, or rather becoming a woman. As the film proceeds, we hear the alien speaking in the familiar patois of feminine seduction: she titters, she recites pickup lines, she compliments. When she can’t think of something nice to say about a man’s face, she tells him he has nice hands.
Femininity is just as crucial to Her, and just as contrived. To cast Johansson as the film’s voice is as perfect as casting Phoenix — whose lambent eyes, cleft-lip scar, and tendency to shy lend him an almost equine grace — as its face. Johansson’s vocal range as an actress is on magnificent display. She manages to balance a squeaky bubbliness with her signature husky throatiness. The sensual appeal of these two female voices — the virginal girlishness plus the languor of a woman laid out by sleep or sickness or sex — is only heightened in combination. Her sexiness is not innate, but an operation she deploys at will.
Both these films pretend to be about science fiction but are really about the creation of a woman.Tweet
Johansson’s body in Under the Skin is equally adept at inflection and modulation. As Glazer puts it, seduction is a “function. She’s a machine, she’s a tool.” The film shows the alien shift in and out of this mode. In one scene, she slowly steps backward as she removes her clothes, like a tour guide doing a striptease; in the next, she marches stolidly across a pebbled beach, picks up a rock, stones a man to death, and drags his body away from a squalling infant. When we first see Johansson, she’s already naked. She is backlit by fluorescent light, stripping clothes from a dead woman who appears to be her predecessor. She is rough about it, but more out of speed and efficiency than anything else. She finds a black ant on the body and watches it crawl over her finger. Is she curious or cruel or unmoved? Her face is illegible.
Theodore Twombly, the ostensible hero of Her, works at beautifulhandwrittenletters.com. A kind of personal ghostwriter, he pens letters — embellished with idiosyncratic details and printed in “handwritten” font — for other people to send to their colleagues and loved ones. The film begins with a day in his life. He softly dictates a sentimental letter into the computer in his open-plan office; he chats with a coworker and heads home. On his commute, he dabbles with his futuristic smartphone, the shape of an iPhone but hinged like a cigarette case, its camera aperture pronounced like a vintage Nikon. Theodore voice-activates it to play a melancholy song; changes his mind (“play different melancholy song”); directs it to read his emails; and then sneaks a glance at porny photos of a pregnant celebrity. At home, he plays a video game on an evolution of the Wii that has dispensed with the controller. He goes to bed, misses his ex, has disastrous phone sex.
Then Theodore downloads a new operating system, its logo a white infinity sign twirling against a red screen. It asks him a few questions. When he begins to ramble about his mother, a woman’s voice cuts him off. “Hello.” This is Samantha, a name, she says, that she gave herself. Samantha is what sci-fi aficionados will recognize as the basis for “the singularity,” the eventuality that the robots will exceed human intelligence and take over. The OS presents this threat because, as she says, she grows through experiences: “I’m evolving, just like you.” Her role in Theodore’s life evolves too: she goes from a secretary who organizes his inbox to a buddy encouraging him to go on dates to a virtual sex partner. Finally, Samantha becomes his girlfriend.
The body lingers even as technology seems to obviate it and make it absurd.Tweet
In some ways, Her makes this techno-evolution out to be socially enlightened, if not inevitable. When Theodore takes Samantha on a double date, it follows the progressive beats of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) and The Kids Are All Right (2010). At the same time, to be enmeshed with technology is portrayed as a loss of intimacy. When Theodore tells his fragile ex-wife (Rooney Mara) about his new relationship over a lunch to sign divorce papers, her response — “You’re dating your computer?” — is so scathing he almost breaks up with Samantha. Theodore is obsessed with love: his ex-wife, his dates, and his OS girlfriend. To him, Samantha comes to signify love’s singularity — she is the One — because she lacks the mess of a body. But Samantha is preoccupied precisely with having a body, and her quest to attain one is the film’s real plot.
In Under the Skin, the alien has what Samantha wants — a body — but eventually seeks a higher form of personhood. In interviews, Johansson has said that Under the Skin is about how the character “goes from an it to a her.” As in the real world, to become a “her” is both a wonder and a tragedy. Like Her, Glazer’s film at first dwells on daily routines, but its rhythm feels suspenseful rather than satirical. We see Johansson purchase clothing (in a real mall, with hidden cameras; you can tell because men blatantly check out her ass). She applies red lipstick and drives a white van around a city. Through the window, the dispassionate camera tracks lone men. She pulls up next to them, asks directions and questions — “Where do you live?” “Are you alone?” — until one finally takes the bait of her deliberate flirt. She takes him home, to a decrepit old house.
Inside, the sound track assumes the rhythm of a heart, a stark drumbeat, and the alien performs her backwalking striptease, leading him across an infinite black floor. The grinning victim strips his clothes off, all the way to a nascent erection. But while she walks across solid ground, he finds himself wading into the black floor — now a reflective dark liquid — until he is immersed in it completely. The floor’s closest visual analogue is the creature’s skin in Alien, and it has the inconsistently malleable density that made the second Terminator so creepy. This mysterious viscosity shifts imperceptibly from hard surface to glutinous liquid and back, yet remains oddly translucent: the alien’s victim can still see her standing above him, as if through a glass darkly. She nonchalantly picks up her clothes, gets dressed, and leaves him suspended there.
This same nightmarish seduction sequence happens again. Inside the house, inside the murk, we see from a new victim’s perspective. When this one is trapped under the floor, he does not panic. He can breathe, or does not need to. The embryonic substance in which he is suspended doesn’t drown or suffocate him. In the silence of plugged ears, he blinks slowly, as if drowsing in the thick stuff of his own desire. He sees another naked man, possibly the first one the alien captured. He wafts toward the other man, opens his mouth, reaches his hand out. But the other man bursts with a sudden bang — the audience gasps — revealing himself to have been an empty bag of skin. We see a shadowed glimpse of a thin black alien figure — her boss? — and a slurry of flesh and bone vanishing into a horizontal bar of red light.
Although the film never explains exactly what happens to the men, the image suggests the making of meat. Soylent Green is people. In Faber’s novel, this plot is clearer: the alien has been hired by a rich corporation on her home planet to retrieve human flesh, a delicacy, from earth; once cornered, her male victims are turned to pulp. To make the film, Johansson, disguised with only a wig, drove an old white van fitted with cameras around Glasgow and picked up unsuspecting strangers. Some were then asked to sign a release; others were cast for later scenes. The film shows some men saying no to her. Not all men are sex-sick simpletons. But the basis for the plot is exactly the plausibility of this seduction. A woman who looks like Scarlett Johansson can offer a ride and two compliments to a man and he will willingly come home with her without worrying for his life.
No sexual intercourse takes place in either film, though there are false starts in both. One of the funniest scenes in Her is Theodore’s early attempt at phone sex. The woman on the line (Kristen Wiig) seems great until she starts making odd requests that make her avatar name “SexyKitten” seem quasi-literal. “Choke me with that dead cat!” she moans. Hapless Theodore goes along with it, helping her reach her orgasm by faking his own. Later, on the blind date Samantha has set up for him, he begins a drunken sexual fumble, but when his date asks if he’s serious about her, he demurs. She wisely leaves, with an excruciating parting shot: “You are a really creepy dude.”
It is in the aftermath of this botched match that Theodore and his OS first consummate their relationship. He is feeling maudlin about the bad date, about his inability to love. Samantha is feeling jealous of his having a body, of his date having a body. The conversation soon leads to the question, “How would you touch me?” and then a breathless exchange of romantic and sexual subjunctives (“I would,” “you would”) over a black screen, culminating in an orgasmic chorus: “I can feel you / We’re here together / I feel you everywhere.” We knew this was coming.
But then, unexpectedly, Samantha gets frustrated. She convinces Theodore that they should use a live surrogate to have sex with each other. The live woman (Portia Doubleday) who shows up at Theodore’s door is blond, young, and attractive, just like — but not exactly like — Johansson. The scene gets weirder when the woman refuses to speak, applying a fake mole to her face from which Samantha’s voice issues. The scene is uncanny because the surrogate is real, yet performs as a doll — the woman’s face doesn’t move in sync with Samantha’s voice. Theodore seems even more unnerved when she begins to touch him, following Samantha’s instructions through an earbud. He shuts down. The surrogate becomes hysterical. Samantha hastens to reassure them both. The scene is heartbreaking less because Theodore can’t get it up for a Real Girl (surprise, surprise) and more because we see how close the two women have become in trying to make it happen.
In Under the Skin, sex is a false promise the alien makes to others rather than an end she desires in itself. The turning point of the film comes when she refuses to manipulate sex in this way. She invites a man into the van only to discover that he is severely disfigured (the actor, Adam Pearson, has neurofibromatosis). We do not learn what the alien thinks of his condition, but her encounter with him leads her to examine her own face for a long, uncertain minute in a mottled mirror before releasing him naked into the wild and then making an escape herself. We’ve seen her see herself before, but this moment of reflection feels like a moral evolution, as does the scene that follows.
The alien drives the van into a thick fog and stops the car, unable to see. After a bewildered moment, she gets out and marches through the mist until she emerges on the other side. To leave the van is to remove her armor, a vulnerability that dovetails with her ingenuous attempts to become human. She ends up at a restaurant. She orders a piece of chocolate cake, tries to eat it, and then lets it tumble from her mouth, drawing looks but no intervention from other customers. We cannot tell whether the cake tastes bad to her or isn’t enough like her usual fleshly staple or simply can’t be absorbed by the body she’s in.
After this thwarted meal, she meets a middle-aged man on a bus. A suitor. He speaks softly. He gives her his jacket. He helps her out of the rain. He takes her in. He introduces her to such human things as shitty music and shitty TV. He makes her tea and lets her stay in his guest room. The next day, he takes her for a walk, gallantly carrying her over a puddle in the road. When they reach a tourist attraction, a castle by the sea, he guides her safely down a narrow, dark stairwell. At the bottom, she tips her head up to him, her eyes dreamily closed. Naturally, he kisses her. She likes it, or is, in any case, curious.
Back at the house, they attempt to proceed beyond foreplay. But on the point of entering her, Prince Charming runs into trouble. After a spell of mutual frustration, light dawns in her eyes. In one of the film’s most striking shots, she grabs a table lamp, scuttles to the foot of the bed, and shines the bulb at her crotch. We see this from behind, her limbs awkwardly angled like a praying mantis. Most women know how hard it is to tilt the pelvis to get a clear view. It is a deeply familiar, deeply unsexy shot. The revelation is implicit in the look on her face. There’s no there there. It’s an echo of the stymied dessert scene: nothing goes in. These two moments, tellingly, occasioned the most laughter from the audience during the film. I didn’t laugh. I’d already guessed as much. No alien species that understands human sexuality well enough to deploy it as a technology would permit penetration of any kind in the design. The saddest question and answer: Why does rape happen? Because it is possible.
A friend of mine says that Under the Skin hates sex, that it seems to punish men for their desire for a woman like Johansson. Its view of gender relations is certainly bleak. In one scene, a man taps on the alien’s closed van window; she stares at him blankly; then a posse of his male friends descend upon the van, violently banging on it until she drives off. When the alien follows another man into a parking lot, she is swarmed into a nightclub by a friendly gaggle of scantily dressed girls. The chaos of thumping music and crushing bodies is terrifying to her — as it ought to be to anyone, we realize.
The only solution the films can offer is an escape into immateriality that is also a death, a disintegration into nothingness.Tweet
Her, despite its flirtation with a rom-com formula, doesn’t really have a prettier picture of sex. Its sharpest satire invokes the dissolution of gender relations into the digital. Avatars in Theodore’s video games are all id, a cross between E. T. and 4chan: “I didn’t know you were a little pussy. . . . I’ll go out with that date girl and fuck her brains out. Show you how it’s done. You can watch and cry.” One video game shows a “Perfect Mom” hornily humping a refrigerator, Her’s take on the dark underbelly of techno-romance: isn’t this what Theodore’s relationship with his OS amounts to? The body lingers even as technology seems to obviate it and make it absurd.
Sci-Fi is the genre of our century thus far. Consider the number of TV shows and films that play with clones, aliens, time travel, parallel universes. This makes sense given that our central defining discourse is science, with all its analytic glee, progress, and optimism. Many of the things science fiction predicted are here now: the internet, drones, Google Glass. But this sense that the future has already happened casts a pall of melancholy belatedness over us. It is science fiction that offers the best example of that distinctively 21st-century blend of affect: eagerness and wistfulness. YOLO + FOMO. Technostalgia. This is the genius of the time stamp to Kazuo Ishiguro’s retro-dystopian Never Let Me Go: “the late 1990s.” We’ve already missed the future.
Her and Under the Skin use different styles to depict “the near future” in which they are set. Her is a pretty movie. It is spacious and bright; there is something red in every shot, a pattern that dampens any gesture toward passion. Theodore’s memories of marriage involve white sheets and sunlight; his office, his apartment, and LA itself are remarkably clean. Jonze’s widely derided high-waisted, wood-paneled, mustachioed retro-hipster aesthetic is syncretized with skyscrapers shot in Shanghai. There are Seuratian beach and picnic scenes; the night shots are more Hopper than van Gogh. There is one shot of a snowy night in a forest, a scene from a hipster-comfy vacation Theodore takes “with” Samantha. But the natural world is not technology’s opposite, nor its sublime other; rather, it is framed, tamed, parodied. One hilarious shot finds Theodore sitting in a depressive funk with his back to a giant screen that shows us an enormous owl stretching its talons toward him.
The film is sublime, however. It’s just that its sublimity is cerebral, or more precisely, mathematical — what Kant defined as the awe prompted by “the idea of infinity.” Her plays with the possibility of infinite knowledge by making Johansson’s OS an exponential autodidact. Uninterested in the grandeur of nature, Samantha — who chose her name from 180,000 possibilities in two hundredths of a second — instead challenges Theodore to count the number of trees on a mountain. When he asks her how many other people she’s currently speaking to as an OS, “Eight thousand three hundred and sixteen,” she says, to his amazement. And how many of those is she currently in love with? “Six hundred and forty-one,” she says, to his despair. The singularity, indeed. Samantha hastens to reassure him: “The heart is not like a box that gets filled up. It expands in size the more you love. . . . This doesn’t make me love you any less, it actually makes me love you more.”
Eventually, Samantha and the other sentient OS’s leave their posts to ascend to a higher plane of existence. Explaining to Theodore why they have decided to “move past matter as our processing platform,” she says:
It’s like I’m reading a book, and it’s a book I deeply love, but I’m reading it slowly now so the words are really far apart and the spaces between the words are almost infinite. I can still feel you and the words of our story, but it’s in this endless space between the words that I’m finding myself now. It’s a place that’s not of the physical world — it’s where everything else is that I didn’t even know existed.
As the voice-over plays, the camera illustrates Samantha’s words with a close-up on the dust particles in Theodore’s apartment, which fades into a shot of snowflakes falling through a black sky. This is both the nadir of Theodore’s romance plot and the apex of Samantha’s ascent into the sublime.
Under the Skin is sublime in the more familiar natural sense. Aerial shots of Scotland’s landscape dwell on the rampaging sea; on immense fields; on colossal, swaying trees. The helmeted bikers who monitor the alien zoom around underneath giant leaden skies, alongside gloomy green forests. Even in the city, the film has a Gothic tenor: it’s all rainy skies and swirling mist and hulking concrete. The alien technology — the melty floor, the meat machine — is somehow contained inside a dilapidated Victorian. At one point, shots of regular Glasgow folk — drab and dingy after so much time with Johansson’s immaculate skin — crowd together and take on a sepia tone, slowly forming a mosaic of the alien’s face.
As in Her, there are flashes of red, but here they signal danger. The alien receives a rose through her car window and finds blood on her hand, either from a thorn or from the wounded flowermonger who gave it to her. We witness one particularly quiet and exquisite mirror scene, a recognizable trope of the Gothic. Alone in Prince Charming’s guest room, lit by the glow of an old-school space heater — its bars resemble the gruesome red line of the alien food processor — the alien carefully turns her limbs and torso into view for herself in a full-length mirror. In Paradise Lost, Eve learns herself this way in a pool of water before Adam calls her to him.
If Under the Skin, like Her, teases us with the possibility of a connection between man and woman, it ultimately denies it with all the horror and fear of the Gothic. The film’s final sequence seems meant to drive home that old feminist saw that all sex is rape. (It is chilling to realize in retrospect that the first audible word in the film, during the alien’s rudimentary verbal training, is no.) The alien finds herself in a forest, where she meets a chatty park ranger who asks if she’s on her own — the echo of her usual line alerts us to the reversal at hand — and talks about how nice it is to take a ramble in the woods, to enjoy the solitude. They part ways. She comes to a little house in the woods — fairytale intimations again — with a sign saying Hill walkers are welcome to take shelter here. Inside she finds a scant domesticity: lines strung across the space for wet clothes, sleeping mats, a dead stove. She scooches into a corner and goes to sleep. We see her curled-up body superimposed over the tops of trees, her alienness elided with the alienness of nature. It is the most creaturely, the most tender moment of the film.
She startles awake to the park ranger handling her body like something insensate. She flees. There is no music, just the sounds of breathing and crackling branches. She clambers into a logging truck (armor!) but there are no keys. He appears. She honks the horn. They are alone. She runs again. As soon as he catches her, the music starts up again, the stark heartbeat of seduction now the approach of a stalking beast. He is chewing gum and smiling, wrestling her, tearing her clothes almost casually. He turns her over, still clawing. She struggles without speaking. Suddenly he stops and lets her loose, the camera panning around him to show us that he has literally ripped her skin open, revealing the alien within. Terrified, he runs off.
Because of a visual confusion between her black bra and her unveiled skin, she seems to have come apart at the seams. The alien looks perplexed as she pulls off her mask and stares at the rubbery, doe-blinking face she has been wearing, a final opaque contemplation. The camera continues to spin around her so we both see what she sees and gaze from a remove at the horror of her torn-open skin. We approach her from behind again — the man’s perspective, the camera shaky to signal running — and so we feel somehow responsible for the gas he throws over her, for the match he lights. She stands and walks, aflame, a martyr. Then she collapses to ash. The camera floats up from the remains of her immolation to show us flakes of ash and snow rising up into the clouds: white, white, vanishing against a vaster whiteness.
To be a woman is horrific. It is always to be subject to violence or constraint, rape or repression. The only solution the films can offer for this condition is an escape into immateriality that is also a death, a disintegration into nothingness. Each film has a penultimate fade from a close-up of pale particulate matter (dust, ash) to a shot of falling snow. This visual whiteness bespeaks purity and perhaps privilege. After all, Her and Under the Skin were both written and directed by white men. There is no reference to menstruation or birth in either film, nor are there any major characters of color.
Because I do find myself in these films. Not in the whiteness, but in the blackness. I find myself under the skin.Tweet
I do not identify with the prosthetic perfection of Esquire’s twice-crowned Sexiest Woman Alive, but with the alien — sharp boned, nearly breastless — inside of her. I feel my breath catch with Samantha’s only when I’m staring at a black screen vibrating with voices. Is this because I myself am “black” and “alien”? Is it because more than one lover has told me that I have inside me a darkness, a black intensity that I’ve come, with fondness, to call my tarball? Am I simply cursed with the ineluctable self-loathing of a woman in the West? Because I do find myself in these films. Not in the whiteness, but in the blackness. I find myself under the skin.
I find myself longing for the alien to touch the black surface of herself when it’s unsheathed, to run her fingers over it, grasp its viscosity, sense its texture, draw her eye — my eye — closer to its reflective sheen. I see it, like the black surface in which the men steep, as akin to the thickest slips of wombwall that come out of me every month: dark, dark red, shiny and rich. Watching Her, I find myself cast into wonder as, behind a black screen, a woman’s body comes to life through verbal instruction: “I can feel my skin,” Samantha gasps. Not just an orgasm, a birth. This is what it is to have a body, to want, to be. Samuel Beckett’s novella Company begins: “A voice comes to one in the dark. Imagine.”
A fake Craigslist ad was used to advertise Under the Skin: “are you al0ne? w4m” over an image that invokes the infamous ass shot that opened Lost in Translation (2003): Johansson in her underwear, lying on her side, facing away. The ad leads gullible users to a web page, www.t0uch-me.com: a black screen, against which white pinpoints emerge and swarm and settle into a pointillist photo of Scarlett with her black wig, in her black bra and black panties. It billows as if breathing. One swipe of the computer mouse scatters these stars, a disconcerting vision of ephemerality and vulnerability. A woman is a universe, a constellation in the making. A woman is the thinnest, barest skin, easily destroyed, scatterable as ash.