Scarlett Johansson, charismatic queen of science fiction

With her role as a cyborg in Ghost in the Shell, the actress has sealed her position as our favourite space invader

Hollywood quickly made room on its red carpets for the young Scarlett Johansson in 2003, when she first created a stir in Sofia Coppolas 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.

Johansson as Major in Ghost in the Shell Photograph: Paramount Pictures

Whether or not the British director Rupert Sanderss 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 Crowes 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 Guardians Peter Bradshaw in finding Under the Skin visually stunning and deeply disturbing: very freaky, very scary and very erotic.

At the same time as Glazers weird thriller came out, a voice-role that Johansson had recorded for director Spike Jonze was to underline the actresss 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.

Johansson in Under The Skin, 2013 Photograph: REX

In last years Marvel extravaganza, Captain America: Civil War, the star flashed across the screen in a bewildering swirl of special effects. Ghost in the Shell, by contrast, promises to be a slightly more sedate piece of crowd-pleasing entertainment. Sanders, with whom Johansson has been romantically linked since her separation from her French husband, Romain Dauriac, has aimed, he has said, for a Victorian theatre sense of depth and has avoided thrashing the camera around like crazy.

Its quite restrained and anime-like, the director has said. I loved the idea of this world inhabited by figures, objects and typography that would be different for everyone who saw them. The biggest thing for me was to honour and respect what had come before and to open it to a wider audience, but try to make an original film.

Based on the Kodansha Comics manga series of the same name, the Ghost in the Shell script was developed using screenshots from the original anime movie adaptation and from its sequel, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, as well as the television series Stand Alone Complex. The central character, the Major, is multi-layered and this is what drew in Johansson. Shes living a unique experience as somebody who has an idea of who she thinks she was, and then who she is now, and the person that she feels she is, this sort of gnawing feeling she has in her ghost, the star has explained. Being able to play those three sides: the ego, the superego and the id … That was pretty enticing.

Whether Johansson has permanently left behind her cinematic reputation as a costume drama actress in favour of robotic antics and superheroes is not yet clear. In 2003, she made a big impression as the moody Girl with a Pearl Earring, and again later as Natalie Portmans co-star in Justin Chadwicks adaptation of the Tudor saga, The Other Boleyn Girl.

Johansson in Woody Allens Vicky Cristina Barcelona, 2008 Photograph: REX

It does look, however, as if the actress will keep honing her comedic skills. Although she was briefly a fully signed-up Woody Allen muse in the mid 2000s, she was never allowed much comic range in either Match Point, Scoop or her highly acclaimed final outing with the director in 2008s Vicky Cristina Barcelona. She managed to be very funny, though, in last years Coen Brothers Hollywood period piece, Hail, Caesar!. Her brassy portrayal of an Esther Williams-style swimming star was a highlight of the film.

Most recently, Johansson has appeared on Americas leading satirical television show Saturday Night Live, building up a close friendship with one of its regular stars, Kate Mckinnon. A sketch earlier this month had her playing a scientist who is disturbed to discover her dog is a Trump supporter.

Always political, Johansson has been outspoken on several fronts. In 2014, she alienated some fans when, as a performer from a Jewish background, she agreed to promote the Israeli company, SodaStream, explaining she did not hold with boycotts and had researched the company ethos. Oxfam was not impressed, all the same, and promptly asked her to stand down from her eight-year role as a goodwill ambassador.

The star also spoke out a year ago on the gender pay gap facing working women. Her response to the problem was nicely nuanced. She remained reluctant to be drawn into the row personally, she said, because her own situation, as one of the highest paid actors in the world, was so impossible for most women to relate to.

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