I caught up on two really interesting science fiction films this past week. The Tom Cruise vehicle "Edge of Tomorrow" was an action packed, but also thoughtful, "War of the Worlds" re-imagined as the Bill Murray comedy "Groundhog Day." And "Under the Skin," starring Scarlett Johansson, was a visceral, disturbing, low-budget story, almost a horror film, that had my heart racing in spots.
In "Edge of Tomorrow" Earth has been invaded, and Europe nearly conquered, by creatures called Mimics. They lurk underground and then attack in overpowering waves. Humankind's forces are massing in London to prepare for one giant invasion of Europe. Cruise plays an American Public Relations officer who is assigned to cover the battle on the ground - he objects to being sent to the front lines (he's never trained for combat) and he threatens to make the British General in charge of the invasion look bad by exploiting the increasing casualties of the united forces. His reward is being labeled a deserter and stripped of his rank and sent directly to combat. He trains briefly in an exo-skeleton battle suit, but dies during the assault, which goes very badly. But as he dies he gets sprayed with the blood of a special Mimic called an Alpha, giving him the power to be "reborn" a few days before his death. And he gets "reborn" again and again, every time he dies on the battlefield. He soon discovers that another soldier he meets on the battlefield, played by Emily Blunt, might have had the same experience as he did. When she sees him during the fight apparently aware of what's about to happen, she tells him to meet her when he is "reborn." He goes back to her, day after day, to train - and he's able to convince her that he too reawakens every time he dies. He learns that she also had the power but lost it when she received a blood transfusion. If you don't fully die, you won't wake back up. From then the film becomes occupied with them trying to figure out a way to beat the Mimics using their own powers - because they must be using their Alphas to figure out what the humans will or won't do on the battle field. They are convinced they need to get to the head Mimic - the Omega - and kill it. But the Mimics always seem to know what they will do, and they get stuck.
It's a good premise, and it gets more interesting when Cruise gets weary of reliving the same battles over and over, while Blunt doesn't remember them. Cruise is also clearly fond of Blunt and doesn't like to see her suffer over and over again. As they seem to keep getting stuck, with the mimics continuing to know their every move, Cruise and Blunt take the movie in a great direction when, in their search for the Omega Mimic, they figure out they need to go "off script" and stop trying to plan their every move. That means they will have only one shot to kill the Omega once they find it. It's a really interesting theme. Fighting the same battle over and over again gets you nowhere. To succeed you have to break convention, take risks. And it's only when Cruise loses his power and gets just one shot at the Omega that this becomes most clear. It's also a good lesson in plotting, and how audiences experience a film differently when they are with the characters, and not ahead of them. Cruise and Blunt try to get ahead of the Mimics in their plot, but they never can!
"Under the Skin" MUST be watched in the dark, on a big screen, with a good sound system. It's a dark film, shot on location on the streets and in the countryside of Scotland. (The soundtrack, including the score and sound effects mix, is essential to the experience. Listen to it with the surround sound on and the sub-woofer LOUD.) The mood of the film is very disturbing. I'm hesitant to reveal the plot because much of the suspense and emotion of the film depends on not being ahead of the characters, not know what is going to happen. In some ways it's the complete opposite of "Edge of Tomorrow." In that film we know all along what the heroes must do, and we are with them trying to do it. In "Under the Skin" we are trying to figure out what exactly Johansson is doing, and why. We don't ever really find out, but we learn enough to be both horrified and saddened by her experiences.
I will tell you that Johansson is very good in a difficult roll. She drives around in a white van, picks up lonely, single men, many of whom were amateurs recruited during filming in order to create some odd realism. Then what she does to the men is . . . horrible and unexpected. She seems both intelligent, coldblooded, and in a sense very naive about what she is doing. She has something of an epiphany later in the film, and begins to experience life more like the humans she is abducting, and it changes her, to a degree. She encounters men who are attracted to her for the same reasons she used to abduct them, but now that she is more "human" she has less power over them. (She seems to be going "off script" as well - there are other people working with her, men who ride motorcycles and seem to "clean up" her mistakes, clearing her tracks if she leaves any evidence of the men she abducts. When she stops abducting lonely strangers, the men on motorcycles hunt for her. Are they using her? Is she a construction of theirs? It's hard to tell.) Ultimately the film ends with us understanding a little bit more about what she was doing, but with little explanation of how or why.
More than anything, "Under the Skin" made me FEEL. The disturbing music and effect score, the dark and moody cinematography, all left me reeling even a day after viewing. Watch it.