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Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin
Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin

Toronto 2013: Under the Skin, Gravity, Jodorowsky's Dune

Dreaming the big dream, Toronto's sci-fi impresses.

By Joshua Rothkopf

Jonathan Glazer's spellbinding Under the Skin drew me in for a second time this morning. This isn't a habit I'm particularly proud of, given the vast options at TIFF, but certain films merit it. Glazer's track record, consisting of Sexy Beast and Birth, guaranteed a first viewing of his latest, which I'm pretty sure is about an alien invasion of Scotland. This is mainly executed by cool, hip-swaying Scarlett Johansson (my kind of alien). The movie is never so gauche as to show metal ships touching down, but a Kubrickian prologue of a dark craft slowly docking into a white ring might, in fact, be her pupils locking into place. On the prowl, the unnamed character goes to the mall and buys a fur coat (another skin), then drives around Glasgow, easily luring strangers into her trap. Their fate is vague: On my initial go-through, I felt a little like these poor saps, who, in the film's most memorable motif, sink into a pool of black goo as Johansson undresses before them. The score, by Mica Levi, scrapes its violin strings unnervingly and seeps into you. A second screening was revelatory of more than just an arty Species. Johansson's character suddenly seemed unbearably sad. Clearly, she's reeling from some half-understood crisis of identity and goes off the grid, fleeing into the woods. I wouldn't call her mood anything as concrete as loneliness or job dissatisfaction. Maybe the idea here is that even aliens lose their sense of purpose. I suspect this is exactly how Glazer feels about moviemaking (only three features in 13 years); if so, Under the Skin is easily his most personal film, hypnotic and tinged with spooky brilliance.

RECOMMENDED: Full coverage of the Toronto Film Festival

How big were Toronto's sci-fi dreamers dreaming? In Glazer's case, immensely. But that was the lingering question after an industry-swamped screening of Gravity. There's no argument that Alfonso Cuarón's Space Shuttle misadventure is a technical knockout, a pulse-pounding battle against depleting air supplies and dangerous floating debris, all of it impeccably rendered in computerized zero-G. It takes confident actors to allow themselves to be so wholly consumed by special effects and still create something warm; George Clooney and Sandra Bullock are fully believeable as scientists ticking off checklists and rising to the occasion. But for all the grand expense on display, Gravity lacks, well, gravity, or at least poetry. Imagine 2001 without the evolving apes, without the monolith or the Space Baby, just pinwheeling spacecraft and beeping airlock sirens, and you have Cuarón's picture. Exhilarating in the moment, it has all the aftertaste of a dilluted glass of Tang. You must see it, just to be gobsmacked. No movie will make Hollywood's craft unions prouder.

As for the sci-fi film with the craziest, most uninhibited imagination, it wasn't shown at all, for the simple reason that it never got made: Jodorowsky's Dune, a loving testament to ambition, unpacks the preproduction of a legendary never-shot epic, a messianic adventure that, had the money come through in 1974, would have undoubtedly steered Hollywood in a wilder direction than Star Wars. If you only know David Lynch's take on the novel, brace yourself: This version would have featured Orson Welles, Salvador Dali, Mick Jagger, the gargoyles of designer H.R. Giger and the music of Pink Floyd, then riding high on Dark Side of the Moon. At the helm of the aborted project was Alejandro Jodorowsky, unparalleled hallucinator of midnight classics El Topo and The Holy Mountain, a man who cast his own teenage son to play the movie's cosmic hero, Paul. Frank Pavich's documentary captures an unbowed, exuberant storyteller, robust in heart, who recalls his team of "spiritual warriors" with the camaraderie of a battle veteran. At one point, Jodorowsky lets his rage fly, taking out his money clip and angrily calling it shit, empty, meaningless. He rails against a studio system that kills dignity and depth. It's a rousing, stand-up-and-cheer moment. But dreaming the dream may have been enough; the unmade Dune is a planet of vast potential, an inspiring accomplishment even in theoretical form. That's how it's done—even if it's not, you know, done.

Follow Joshua Rothkopf on Twitter: @joshrothkopf


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