Subversive Scarlett

This month, it was announced that Scarlett Johansson would play the lead role in “Ghost in the Shell,” the first American adaptation of the popular anime book series about a female cyborg cop. Given the paucity of roles written for East Asian actresses, cries of whitewashing deserved to be heard. But some felt that, if a white woman had to be cast, Scar-Jo was the perfect pick.

With her Marilyn Monroe curves, full lips, sparkling eyes, and low-key charisma, it would be easy for the former child star to coast on an endless wave of mainstream Hollywood wife and prostitute roles. Instead, ever since she broke out in 2003’s “Lost in Translation,” Johansson keeps playing against type – subverting her good looks by playing cartoons of femininity that, in many cases, are not even human.

Consider these six roles.

Jordan Two Delta

In Michael Bay’s “The Island” (2005), Johansson and Ewan McGregor play two extremely good-looking, tracksuit-clad inhabitants of a hyper-controlled ecosystem that is the last uncontaminated spot on Earth. Or is it? When the two discover they are clones bred as living organ donors and surrogate mothers for wealthy sponsors, the film devolves into a dull action pic – but not before raising some useful questions about the ethics of breeding technology. (The film is set in 2019, which was the near future even at the time of its release.) Though visibly uncomfortable in her Sporty Spice uniform, Scarlett plays just dumb enough to shine in what will eventually be hailed as a mid-Aught sci-fi classic.

Natasha “Black Widow” Romanoff

Okay, technically the Black Widow is human. But in “Iron Man 2” (2010), “The Avengers” (2012), Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), and the upcoming “Avengers: Age of Ultron: (2015) – all of which are technically literary adaptations – the super-brainy Russian agent with jacked-up powers is rarely subject to human attachments. Frankly, as much as the role demands Scarlett be in peak physical condition, we get the sense these are the phone-in roles she takes to secure the financial future of her own replicants – otherwise known as “descendants.”


In “Don Jon,” Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s 2013 directorial debut, Scarlett plays a suburban diva who embodies such physical perfection that she inspires porn addict Jon (Gordon-Levitt) to try having a real-life girlfriend. With her shellacked makeup and hair, skin-tight glamazon duds, and va-va-voomy cleavage, she scarcely seems more human than the photoshopped women he ogles, anyway – at least until she opens her mouth and begins barking out demands in a thick New Jersey accent. A terrific send-up of today’s hyper-commodification of romantic and sexual congress.


When it was first announced that the gorgeous blond was replacing Samantha Morton as the computer operating system in Spike Jonze’s “Her” (2013), eyebrows were raised. But with her warm voice and emotional accessibility, Johansson proved once and for all that her sexual appeal wasn’t just skin deep. In fact, with her and Pheonix’s chemistry at its forefront, this “slightly futuristic” love story manages to tackle the limited utility of our physical bodies amid an ever-evolving technology, the finite and infinite forms of all relationships (even to ourselves), and the possibility that intelligent consciousness and love are in no way confined to the scope of a human life. You know: just another day at work.

The Female

Jonathan Glazier’s sci fi noir “Under the Skin” (2013), about an unnamed female extraterrestrial dispatched to trap human males for consumption on her own planet, is adapted from Michael Faber’s 2000 eponymous book – but only glancingly. Really, the film is a barely comprehensible reverie in which we scarcely understand what Johansson’s character is, let alone what she is doing or why. Many have kvelled over the film’s “eerie brilliance” but I suspect they were subject to the mass hypnosis induced by shots of a naked ScarJo in – quelle arty! – a dark wig. A rare misstep for Our Lady S.


Even the premise of “Lucy” (2014) is madcap: Upon delivering a mysterious package to Taiwanese crime lords, expat Lucy accidentally ingests such huge quantities of an experimental recreational drug that she enters a stage of human evolution in which extrasensory perception, telekinesis, and the fourth dimension – as well as her own death – is a matter of course. Leave it to French director Luc Besson (“La Femme Nikita,” “The Fifth Element”) to make a shoot’em-up thriller about a woman (Johansson) being driven to extinction by her own brain power. But leave it to Johansson to compensate for his lapses in logic through the sheer might of her physical, intellectual, and spiritual radiance. No wonder this film made a mint at the box office.

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy