At the end of last year’s Her, AI love interest Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) ascended to a higher level of consciousness. Johansson may have ascended along with her character—and the condition seems to have carried over into the following year. Johansson was everywhere in 2014, beyond even a trifecta of major movie releases and accompanying magazine covers. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Lucy, and Under The Skin connect not just to each other but to other cinematic highlights of 2014. Led by Johansson’s unlikely symbol of space-time travel, many of the year’s best movies make surprisingly successful attempts at transcendence—much more so than the Johnny Depp movie about a similar subject. (I think it was called Computer Man.)
Johansson’s biggest hit of 2014 was Captain America: The Winter Soldier—still one of the high grossers of the year, alongside its Marvel Studios stablemate Guardians Of The Galaxy. Like Guardians, Winter Soldier showed off the company’s skill in producing reasonably smart and often delightful mainstream entertainment, and though Guardians has been the slightly more celebrated of the two for its irreverent sense of humor, Winter Soldier is one of the most ambitious Marvel projects so far. Johansson’s expanded role as the Black Widow (also known as Natasha Romanoff), this year’s female superhero with the most agency, contributes greatly to its success.
It may have been Johansson’s good luck to sign on for Black Widow duty during preproduction on Iron Man 2, when the role was circulating among every twentysomething woman in Hollywood, but she’s made a potentially stock part her own. As an actress, Johansson has been accused of blankness—specifically, of staring with her mouth slightly agape—and in classic movie-star mode, her signature converts a perceived weakness into an iconic feature. Johansson’s face remains so implacable during so much of her Marvel work that the tiniest gestures—the beginnings of a smile, a flash of genuine panic—take on a greater weight.
In The Winter Soldier, Natasha still does her ass-kicking super-agent thing, but the film grounds the character, too, complementing Johansson’s glimmers of humanity. Black Widow is so human, in fact, that Johansson fails to travel through space or time at all during the entire movie; her superhero role may also be her least fantastical work of the past year. (Before bringing up Chef, consider that in it, she plays Jon Favreau’s casual girlfriend). That said, Natasha does brush up against time travel: She acts as both mentor and de facto work wife to Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers, who has managed to achieve some accidental time travel by getting frozen during World War II and waking up 70 years later. She also encounters Dr. Zola (Toby Jones), whose consciousness has been preserved inside a series of computers and across decades, a comic-book take on an idea that would reverberate through other 2014 films.
On the same day that Winter Soldier was released in the U.S., Johansson was also placed front and center for Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin, in which she plays an alien who wanders the Scottish countryside, seducing men and performing unspecified but gruesome-looking experiments on them. Like an art-house Species, the movie lingers on the seduction process. Quite unlike any kind of Species, the seduction is preceded by humdrum conversation, and Johansson’s unnamed creature is allowed moments of quiet wonder—at nature, at genuine humans, at her own manufactured body. Glazer uses Johansson’s ultra-recognizable face as an anchor for a movie that works as a sort of hypnotism; much of Under The Skin observes, with mounting dread, an extremely famous movie star behave in quietly alien ways. As such, it’s sometimes hard to tell how much time passes during the story. It’s the sinister flip side to the movie star powers she uses for good in The Winter Soldier, and something of an artist flip side, too. If the Captain America sequel represents high-end Hollywood studio craft—where the studio has been replaced by a semi-autonomous subsidiary that used to only make comic books—Under The Skin transports audiences someplace more surprising and strange. Yet its otherworldliness is not so different from the desired effect of a number of bigger, splashier sci-fi movies.
One recent such bigger sci-fi gambit also stars Johansson. Lucy, Luc Besson’s take on Johansson, the universe, and everything, is both the least of her three 2014 films and the best Besson movie in almost two decades. In it, Johansson’s character more explicitly traverses time and space as her powers expand along with her increased ability to harness the full potential of her brain (a ludicrous notion, but irresistibly so). What looks, initially, like another Besson vehicle for an attractive, petite woman to kick ass becomes far stranger when Lucy becomes so vastly powerful that she transcends mere ass-kicking. She can dispatch armies of men with the flick of her wrist and, for that matter, can send herself hurtling through time, as she rewinds to watch Times Square time-lapse to life before her eyes, and at one point rockets back to dinosaur times before presenting herself as an all-encompassing flash drive. (How did Universal pass up the Lucy flash drive marketing tie-in?)
Lucy is a deeply silly movie, and not really one of the year’s best. But it gets points for wacked-out audacity, and more importantly for taking Johansson’s ongoing journey to the logical conclusion—alluded to in Her but unseen, as Johansson’s Samantha never takes corporeal form and the movie keeps its point of view fixed on Joaquin Phoenix’s character. In Lucy, she eventually becomes a sort of all-knowing god, shedding her humanity along with traditional perceptions of space and time. It may have been brought on by an experimental drug that increases brain capacity, but Lucy’s fate isn’t really seen as sad by the movie so much as inevitable and trippy in its excitement. There’s some fretting about the loss of what makes her human, but also plenty of marveling at her fantastic journey, and what her mind can do when fully unlocked. Maybe that’s why Besson gets away with the blatant lie that humans don’t use all of their brains, and the additional lie that if they did, they would somehow gain the power to time travel and also change their hair color at will. It’s a fiction born out of the desire to control and make sense of our place in the universe, including pesky, slippery time.
That desire features so prominently in other highlights of 2014, it’s as if Lucy, Samantha, or some other version of Johansson jumped into digital projectors and screenwriters’ laptops. Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar ostensibly concerns space travel and the practical fate of humanity, but the characters keep running into time barriers, both broadly in the sense that the human race has relatively little time left on Earth, and specifically when Coop (Matthew McConaughey) must contend with a space mission that bends and warps time. While he tinkers around on a far-away planet for what feels to him like less than an hour, people on Earth, including his children, age decades. If Nolan sometimes allows himself to get bogged down with the science and process of his space adventuring, his level of detail also allows for a heartbreaking contrast when all of the sci-fi explanations are reduced to McConaughey watching a video of his kids growing up without him. For all of its knottiness, Interstellar unfolds with an unusual, daring mixture of awe-inspiring hugeness (especially on a real-deal Imax screen) and startling intimacy. Like Lucy—and the final sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey from which both movies obviously borrow—Interstellar also boils down to an epic journey undertaken by a single person doing something that seems possible—in this case, reaching across space, time, and some kind of gravity dimension just to communicate with a family member. It’s the sort of gesture that the Under The Skin version of Johansson might observe with that familiar, slightly puzzled expression.
Doug Liman’s Edge Of Tomorrow also attempts to solve problems through seemingly impossible means. When Tom Cruise’s character dies in an alien battle, he absorbs an alien-based ability to reset time, returning to the same morning, Groundhog Day-style. He uses this ability to try to save humanity from the invaders, of course, but the movie gains its poignancy from his relationship with a military star (Emily Blunt, once considered for Johansson’s Black Widow part and flexing similar muscles here); her time lines reset constantly, even as he continues to accumulate knowledge about and feelings for her. Though the movie sometimes portrays the time-loop as something of a purgatory, the power becomes aspirational, much like a Johansson-style quest (not least for the way it’s built around the instantly recognizable face of an iconic star). For once in his selfish, smirking life, Cruise’s character has the chance to get something right, no matter how long it takes. Tellingly, the movie ends on his face—not triumphant in victory against his alien enemies, but teary with relief that he gets to see this woman (who will still regard him as a stranger!) one more time. The quiet emotion Cruise gets across in that final shot cuts through science fiction logistics, and makes a small moment feel huge.
Even movies well outside the science fiction genre reached across time in 2014. Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel travels decades in the blink of a cut and carries real emotional heft in the way its characters disappear into history books and stories. The movie never introduces the young woman who visits the statue of the deceased writer who tells the story of the title hotel. Yet, her lonely reading of the book in question becomes a crucial image; she’s the one traveling the greatest distance. And Richard Linklater’s Boyhood represents both the simplest and most complex time travel story of the year, assembling footage shot over the course of 12 years and compressing “real time” into something both transporting and familiar. Regardless of how the characters struggle with or welcome it, time passes in front of their eyes, and ours.
Scarlett Johansson, of course, is nowhere to be found in Boyhood. (She doesn’t really fit the Linklater aesthetic—she’s too glamorously opaque.) Yet, her recent movies aren’t, thematically speaking, so far removed from Linklater’s crowning achievement; all of them involve artists reaching further, across traditional boundaries, saying tricky things in more complex ways than we might reasonably expect. Though the amorphous blur of big studios, big money, and seasoned professionals known as “Hollywood” remains obsessed with sequels, prequels, franchises, and interconnected universes that resemble big-screen TV shows, one of its hottest commodities spent 2014 appearing in projects that are by turns loopy, audacious, ambitious, and strangely of a piece with several more otherwise unrelated high-quality movies.
There are still franchise nightmares like The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, of course, and, for that matter, uninspired biopic naps like The Theory Of Everything. But against the significant odds those movies represent, 2014 was a great year for film—as were 2013 and 2012, suggesting that this uptick in quality may not be an anomalous blip on the space-time-Johansson continuum. Movies like Under The Skin, Grand Budapest, Boyhood, Edge Of Tomorrow, Interstellar, and even The Winter Soldier can feel like acts of time travel beyond the mechanics of their plots. They reach out and assert themselves across the months of the 2014 and, maybe, for years to come.