Get to know the killer badass Scarlett Johansson is playing next
GET TO KNOW THE KILLER BADASS
IS PLAYING NEXT
Motoko Kusanagi is fierce, sexy, and soulful—just like Scarlett.
By Nick Schager on January 6, 2015
It's unlikely that the forthcoming remake of Ghost in the Shell starring Scarlett Johansson will begin in the same way as its predecessor, Mamoru Oshii's 1995 anime classic: with the sight of its cyborg heroine, Motoko Kusanagi, jumping off a skyscraper and shooting a target through a window as she falls, all while appearing nude*. Then again, considering that Johansson exhibited a willingness to disrobe for the cameras in last year's masterful sci-fi thriller Under the Skin, it remains possible that director Rupert Sanders's (Snow White and the Huntsman) Americanized redo will mimic even its source material's fondness for skin—an element that, titillation aside, is an integral part of the film's portrait of man's relationship to technology, which in its near-future has progressed to the point of becoming fundamental, and more than a little sensual. Either way, though, the announcement that Johansson has finally signed onto the project is extremely exciting, because in a host of ways, it appears to be an absolutely ideal project for the actress, even if there's a solid argument out there that the studio should've pursued an Asian actress.
Ghost in the Shell began with Masamune Shirow's seminal manga series, which in its native Japan spawned multiple films and a popular TV series (Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex). A domestic adaptation has struggled to get off the ground for years, primarily because Oshii's original animated film remains, 20 years after its debut, a highly influential science-fiction gem, one that broke ground for its synthesis of traditional and computer-generated animation, and which marries action, sex, and philosophical concerns about the nature of self to enthralling ends. Equally excited by and fearful of ubiquitous technology, and rife with government-big-business conspiracies, it's a story steeped in topics still relevant today. And at its center is Kusanagi, a cutting-edge robotic agent in mid-21st-century Japan's Section 9 counterterrorism unit, whom Johansson will now almost certainly play in the update.
Teamed with her gruff, foul-mouthed partner Batou, Kusanagi is tasked with unraveling a convoluted mystery involving a notorious hacker known as The Puppet Master who can break into not just computer networks but also into minds, since just about everyone in this future-Japan has, physically and mentally, been technologically upgraded. With rare exceptions, the population is now semi-automated, giving citizens enhanced superpowers, as well as the ability to plug into Internet-style databases through wire ports located in the backs of their necks. It's a dystopian future in which the boundary between man and machine has been hopelessly blurred, calling into question what it is that defines life: Flesh? Sentient thought? Reproduction? Something more intangible?
Buxom, unflappably cool, and possessed with a brutal physicality that's augmented by her mecha-brain, Kusanagi is like a brunette version of Johansson's Lucy protagonist, whose extraordinary capabilities are similarly the result of science. Kusanagi's swift, balletic acrobatic fighting skills also recall those of Johansson's Marvel spy Black Widow, whose ass-kickery has a sly self-assuredness that enhances her sex appeal. In other words, Ghost in the Shell affords the actress a chance to meld many of the attributes of her most recent characters, a promising prospect given that Johansson's 2014 output solidified her as an action heroine par excellence.
Even more than her face-kicking, limb-snapping credentials, though, it's Johansson's somewhat detached, inscrutable soulfulness that makes her ideal for Ghost in the Shell. Kusanagi's mechanical body houses an organic brain (i.e., the ghost in her proverbial shell), and much of Oshii's film is concerned with her quest to understand herself: Is she human or robot? Alive or merely operational? Alone or inherently interconnected? The backdrop of The Puppet Master only further shades her narrative with existential questions of identity and alienation. As such, the film requires a leading lady who's not only a formidable physical presence, but one who can convey a deeper, haunting internal confusion and crisis. Johansson brought those very qualities to Under the Skin, in which, as an extraterrestrial hunting for male prey in Scotland, the star wielded her eroticism-as-weapon and an ominous measure of fish-out-of-water solitude, as if her alluring alien was both fascinated by the people around her, and increasingly sorrowful over her inherent difference, and detachment, from them.
As confirmed by her three high-profile 2014 films (Under the Skin, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Lucy), Johansson is a compelling dramatic force dropped into a cacophonous field of CG fireworks. That may, in the end, prove to be her greatest asset when it comes to Ghost in the Shell, since its futuristic tale of cyber-espionage will undoubtedly require more than its fair share of digital wizardry, especially if it seeks to faithfully duplicate the original's stunning imagery of limbs severing, heads exploding, and bodies drifting through the air, water, and digital ether. However, if director Rupert Sanders is smart, he'll realize that his greatest special effect is ultimately his transfixing star, even if, ultimately, she keeps her clothes on.
*Correction: As a commenter points out, Motoko wears a skintight, flesh-colored body suit in the opening scene that makes her appear nude, though she technically is not.
Nick Schager is a New York City-area film critic and journalist who also contributes toThe Village Voice, Time Out New York, Vulture, The A.V. Club, The Dissolve, The Atlantic, SF Weekly, Film Journal International, and Slant Magazine. In his scant spare time, he sleeps.