Hollywood quickly made room on its red carpets for the young Scarlett Johansson in 2003, when she first created a stir in Sofia Coppola’s film, Lost in Translation. It seemed clear that this blonde bombshell from New York, who was so ably sharing the screen with a dyspeptic Bill Murray, would go on to deliver popcorn buckets-full of mainstream audience appeal. Beautiful, mysterious and charismatic: she was already an aspirational trophy for any traditional leading man.
Yet, 14 years on, Johansson is established instead as a rather different sort of screen idol. Following a succession of high-octane blockbusters and off-beat critical hits, the actress is now enshrined as perhaps the leading sci-fi action star of her generation. Where once her sardonic smirks and sultry looks spoke of old-school movie glamour, she is now more likely to grab the limelight by kickboxing than by smouldering.
From this Friday, Johansson, 32, will be seen fighting her way to further futuristic box office glory from the midst of a vast, glassy pool of water. Ghost in the Shell, her new cyborg film, is based on Japanese anime characters and features a key combat scene set in a dystopian urban lake. It is a watery sequence clearly designed to become a totemic bit of modern cinema, like that horizontal tussle in The Matrix or the folding streetscape in Inception.
Whether or not the British director Rupert Sanders’s new film achieves the status of a sci-fi classic, it is clear that Johansson, who earned a rumoured £12.4m, has increasingly steered her career towards unexpectedly violent and often unnerving roles. While it is true that she has tackled a few family-oriented outings over the years, such as Cameron Crowe’s We Bought a Zoo in 2011, it is her more aggressive work in zip-up Lycra that has earned her a place up among the Hollywood A-listers.
This adventurous side of Johansson was most apparent in 2013, when she took the part of the alien in Under the Skin. A horror film directed by Brit Jonathan Glazer, it was a big risk for the star, not just because she would be playing a carnivorous, marauding visitor from another planet, nor because the film had been notoriously hard to make, but because she had to work on location in Glasgow, driving around in a Transit van and interacting with real people, many of whom had no idea they were taking part in the film.
The risk paid off in style. Many critics agreed with the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw in finding Under the Skin “visually stunning and deeply disturbing: very freaky, very scary and very erotic”.
At the same time as Glazer’s weird thriller came out, a voice-role that Johansson had recorded for director Spike Jonze was to underline the actress’s move towards sci-fi. She played Samantha, a captivating computer operating system in his film, Her.
By then, the star had also taken up the screen persona that was to project her right into the heart of a global superhero franchise. Since 2012, she has played Natasha Romanoff, the Black Widow of the Marvel Avengers series. First donning her black Neoprene jumpsuit for Avengers Assemble, the actress has already reprised the Black Widow role three times and is currently filming Avengers: Infinity War.
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