IT WAS one year ago that Ricky Ma, a product and graphic designer in Hong Kong, unveiled his $50,000 home hobby to Reuters: the creation of a near-life-size robot that looked uncannily — to a creepy degree — like Scarlett Johansson.
This week, upon the release of the Rupert Sanders adaptation “Ghost in the Shell,” Johansson’s role as a cyborg with a human brain is a reminder of how much Ma’s robot reflects the conflicts embedded in many of her roles.
In 2017, perhaps no other A-list actress is so consistently drawn to sci-fi roles about struggling to have agency over one’s body and mind.
In Sanders’s adaptation of Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 cyberpunk anime masterpiece (as well as Masamune Shirow’s source manga), Johansson plays the Major — a trained warrior who combines a prosthetic “shell” with a dead woman’s brain that still holds the “ghost” of her mind’s memory.
Once again, in other words, Johansson inhabits a character who raises questions about the definition of humanity, as well as the struggle to find or retain some semblance of it.
It’s not so surprising that a former child actor would be drawn to the theme of having agency over your words and actions and very likeness, given the degree to which you must professionally surrender some of yourself at such a young age (and Johansson has been appearing on our screens for nearly a quarter-century now).
Yet in an eclectic and remarkably savvy career so far — one that has put Johansson atop the list of return-on-investment actresses — many of her choices since hitting her mid-20s have gravitated toward similar philosophical themes.
Johansson is most known globally, of course, as Marvel’s Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff. Over the course of the Avengers films, it has been fascinating to learn more about how the wounds of a surrendered childhood inform the choices of a grown, empowered woman. When we discover that she even had her reproductive rights taken from her as part of the Soviet training of young assassins, we not only sympathize deeply — we also understand just how much of her life was programmed for her. How do you recover your humanity when so much of it was drilled right out of you?
That ongoing role over the past seven years has served as a tether to so many of her characters since. We were primed to see her as the lethal alien in “Under the Skin,” and the hyper-developed warrior in “Lucy,” and the disembodied artificial intelligence who evolves far beyond her “owner” in “Her” — all variations on a theme.
Yet Johansson is also drawn to the idea of physical and emotional agency when playing historic Hollywood archetypes like the blond bombshell. She is Janet Leigh, caught in the director’s web of genius and lechery, in “Hitchcock.” And in one of her funniest turns in years, she is an Esther Williams-type performer in a marine musical whose personal sexual life is monitored and then managed by the film studio, in “Hail, Caesar!”
So Johansson, with “Ghost,” continues on a longer career path that grows more fascinating with each calculated choice. We can’t know what roles Barbara Stanwyck might have chosen in a CGI-heavy era, but Johansson might be the closest analog in the digital world of film: the actress whose characters fight for every literal fiber of their existence.