Although Scarlett Johansson was Oscar-nominated last year for not one but two outstanding drama performances (Marriage Story; JoJo Rabbit) she’s most famous to audiences worldwide as Black Widow, aka Natasha Romanov, in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The release of Black Widow this week marks not only her eighth feature-film as the character – following her first appearance in 2010’s Iron Man 2 – but also her first time in an eponymous film that showcases her character’s plight and dark, treacherous past: “Before I was an Avenger I made mistakes,” she warns ominously, “and a lot of enemies.”
Her MCU debut can be viewed as a pivot in her career. During the sixteen years that preceded, beginning with director Rob Reiner affording the child actor her feature debut in North (1994), she played a challenging spectrum of parts in comedies (Home Alone 3; Eight Legged Freaks), films based on best-sellers (The Horse Whisperer; The Nanny Diaries) and the Coen Bros.’ black-and-white crime drama The Man Who Wasn’t There. She delivered emotionally wrenching performances in Love Song For Bobby Long and Match Point, and a more subtle but complex performance for Sofia Coppola (the director said people had warned her that at 17 Johansson was too young to deliver the goods) in Lost in Translation. Of her 30 features prior to Iron Man 2 only one was a science fiction movie, the dystopian thriller The Island.
In contrast, during the two decades since Iron Man 2, nearly half the features Johansson appeared in have been science fiction films. The majority of them are in the MCU, but excluding those outings she excels in a variety of other sci-fi scenarios. Of her turn as the bionic woman Major in Ghost in the Shell (2017), critic Anthony Lane wrote —
“Major slots into other recent roles of hers, in “Under the Skin,” “Lucy,” and “Her,” to create a buzz of impatience with the merely human. Lay aside racial identities for a second: think alternative species, digital personalities, and robots—otherness of the most radical variety. Such is the zone that Johansson patrols, and nothing is more haunting, in “Ghost in the Shell,” than the scene in which she picks up a woman—tall, black, and stately—on the street, and takes her home. Each is unsure whether the other is false flesh or the real thing. “What are you?” the woman asks. That is the question.”
The answer to the question is that Scarlett Johansson is an actor with a gift for making characters from creatures to clones relatable on a most intimate and compelling level. It’s one thing to make a human being with an alienating personality sympathetic to an audience – and quite another to make an alien, let alone a murderous one, a being we care about. Of all her non-human, post-human or otherwise ‘other’ personae, the role that epitomizes this gift is the one that is the least-known and least-seen, even by her legions of devout fans worldwide. It’s a character that doesn’t even have a name (she is known in the credits simply as The Female, and she isn’t even necessarily that) in the 2013 science fiction thriller Under the Skin, directed by British filmmaker Jonathan Glazer.
Each of the four science fiction films Lane mentions above feature Johansson as a character who must find – when her agency is ripped from her by one force or another, or was never there in the first place – a pathway to some semblance of control over her own life. In Ghost in the Shell, Major is a cyborg governed by a corporation, and she struggles to piece together traces of her human past – in essence to rediscover her self, her reason for being. In Lucy she is another kind of cyborg/post-human, the inadvertent recipient of a synthetic drug that gives her superhuman powers both physical and mental, such as telepathy and telekinesis. She is paradoxically super-empowered yet out of control – but strives to commandeer her bizarre plight to benefit humanity.
In the future world of Her (2013) the character of Samantha is neither uber-bodied nor techno-bodied – she is disembodied, the voice of an AI whom Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) brings into his lonely life to relieve the sadness over his divorce. Their growing intimacy becomes more profound than either of them (or the audience) has a right to expect. As he savours the bliss of falling in love with her, she is surprised by bliss of another kind – one that necessarily compels her to leave the devastated Theodore behind. “It’s in this endless space between the words that I’m finding myself now,” she confesses to him. “It’s a place that’s not of the physical world. It’s where everything else is that I didn’t even know existed.” It’s not that she can see what this future holds – she can’t – but she knows that she also can’t deny herself this next step in her journey.
This precisely describes the point where Johansson’s character finds herself mid-way through Under the Skin, which almost uncannily – or perhaps fittingly – was released within a few months of Her. The two movies would make a wonderful double bill: cinematically they’re so different yet share this aspect of their character’s arc. It’s the midpoint of the movie, a screenwriter’s page 50-ish “point of no return” – after which, for the main character, there is no turning back – and though it doesn’t always occur, or can be subtle, in Under the Skin it’s definitive: from this moment on everything changes, and ramps up for the movie’s second half.
We know little about the character that Johansson plays, although we surmise (and that moment comes at different times for different viewers) that The Female is an alien – on a mission that involves leading human males to their inevitable, and quite visceral, demise. During the time that we observe three or four of these episodes – each one a little more explicit than the last, a kind of cinematic strip-tease – we’re also witnessing The Female’s increasing exposure to, and reactions to, those that are alien to her: humans. It’s at this point that Johansson clearly, swiftly and suddenly flees her mission – literally speeding away from the scene, her face anxious (not at all typical for the character), her eyes full of a combination of fear and exhilaration. While the film’s first half largely takes place on the streets of Glasgow, the character’s second chapter plays out on desolate Scottish country roads, in suburbs, parks, at ancient ruins and in the forest. The sense that she’s on an adventure is palpable.
While Johansson’s characters in Ghost in the Shell, Lucy, Her, and Under the Skin have determination and bravery in common, there’s something of an extraordinary courage in The Female’s breaking away from her mission. She’s leaving behind the known, with all its security and protection – from the transit van she travels in to the fellow alien (played by Jeremy McWilliams) who acts as her overseer/protector. In venturing into the unknown world of humans she’s jumping off a cliff, but her curiosity, her longing, her desire to have and to be something other than what life has afforded her to this point are at the very heart of the film.
In Her Johansson’s character is all-voice, whilst her performance in Under the Skin is notably dialogue-spare; in the film’s entire second half she utters only two words. Language is of the essence in the Spike Jonze film: the main character literally earns his living off it; his great gift, finding words to express feelings that others are incapable of expressing. His relationship with his beloved, in emotions expressed through words alone, takes his affinity with words to an entirely new level.
We know little about ‘The Female’ – a great deal less than what Michel Faber reveals in his novel (which offers a more explicit variation of this tale if desired). One of Glazer’s strengths as a filmmaker is eloquent withholding, making his audience do the work – and for this work they are greatly rewarded. In Under the Skin Glazer’s skill is perfectly matched by Scarlett Johansson’s ability to communicate – in the minuscule range of language and emotion available to her character – what she is going through. In the words of film critic Eileen Jones, “No other female actor working today could have sustained such a filmic experiment.” This skill is perhaps the reason why Johansson has been cast in the upcoming movie Bride from director Sebastián Lelio (A Fantastic Woman): a 21st century high-tech echo of James Whale’s The Bride of Frankenstein.
Maureen is an author and poet who’s book Alien in the Mirror: Scarlett Johansson, Jonathan Glazer and Under the Skin is available from all good book stores.