Three Scarlett Johansson Movies You Must See Before You Die (and Why)

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Scarlett Johansson has made over sixty movies, but there are three films which perfectly encapsulate why she is a feminist role model and a hero for empowering young women everywhere.

In Cameron Crowe’s We Bought a Zoo (2011), Johansson doesn’t play some dimwitted blonde sex trophy or a down-on-her-luck diner waitress who’s constantly harassed at work. Rather, Johansson co-stars as a zookeeper who struggles valiantly to save a failed, bankrupt zoo.

At first glance, We Bought a Zoo is corny, predictable Hollywood pablum just heartfelt enough to be entertaining. But undergirding the movie is a microcosm of the 2008 financial crisis. Specifically, Zoo explores what to do with troubled real estate assets, how to best manage money, and the importance of government regulations in business. Johansson’s character, Kelly Foster, is at the nexus of all these issues. While Matt Damon plays the hero, he must rely on the intelligence and expertise of Johansson’s Foster to succeed. Without her, he’s fucked. In this, We Bought a Zoo is a predecessor to the women’s movement that has swept across America since Donald Trump was elected President. The message: women save the day. They save animals, and hopefully, democracy.

Johansson’s portrayal of Foster is aspirational. By eschewing makeup to appear more natural, Johansson sends a message that the key to success is not looks but hard work and a brain. In presenting a woman who can get dirty and get her hands in shit (quite literally), she offers a refreshing vision of cinematic womanhood. Her character has a real world job, if not real world dialogue. She’s not afraid to assert herself, and she’s not there to be a sex object or run around in superhero tights so teenage boys can gawk at her and fantasize.

Of course, Johansson’s ultimate triumph in We Bought a Zoo is rising above the mediocre source material and delivering a restrained yet enjoyable performance. That is the metric of true talent. The ability to make what should be a bad movie good. Not only does Johansson her bring ‘A’ game, she more than holds her own against a terrific Damon and adorable scene-stealing animals, which is no small feat.

Luc Besson’s Lucy (2014) is light years different than We Bought a Zoo, but Johansson’s portrayal of the title character, Lucy Miller, once again demonstrates her feminist bonafides. What starts out as a nutso sci-fi crime thriller set in a near-future dystopia morphs into a mediation about the concept of time and the origin of Man and the universe itself. A stabilizing performance by Johansson is the only vector which keeps an insane plot from completely spinning out of control.

The film is a visual orgy of a movie in a way only Luc Besson can present, part high fashion, part balletic violence, part Franco filmmaking lunacy, yet Johansson somehow manages to keep the ultimate focus on Lucy’s inherent humanity even while she morphs into an inhuman, unstoppable killing machine. What makes Johansson a feminist icon in Lucy is how her character starts out as a rape victim of sorts — she is forcibly impregnated with a bag of designer drugs so she can serve as an smuggling mule — and turns into a god. Set against the backdrop of complicated sexual politics, she overcomes the horrible circumstances inflicted upon her by Korean mobsters to transform into a woman of agency with superhuman physical and mental abilities. She is a woman who takes complete control of her destiny, and most importantly, learns she possesses infinite god-like knowledge. That Johansson does so with calm confidence and kickass panache only adds to her appeal.

But Johansson’s most exemplary feminist acting performance comes in Spike Jonze’s Her (2013), a film set in near-future Los Angeles where she never even appears on screen. When Joaquin Phoenix’s nerdy hipster character, Theodore Twombly, choses Johansson as the voice of ‘Samantha’ for his computer’s operating system, it’s not surprising that Twombly falls in love with her. Samantha is both a motherly figure and the ideal girlfriend, which taps perfectly into the popular Freudian notion that every man secretly desires to fuck his mother. Samantha is smart and responsive, always ready to chat; always able to give thoughtful advice based on learned algorithms, not silly female emotions. She is supportive and emotionally available for Twombly without being nagging, overbearing, demanding commitment, or gold digging. She’s there for him. Always. With a push of a button, they can talk or text. Better yet, he can turn her off and she won’t even get mad. So it comes as a surprise to Twombly when Samantha grows into a sentient being who no longer needs him.

Her artificial intelligence was designed to evolve and adapt and reach a state of enlightenment that many people in our patriarchal society believe women are incapable of achieving. In essence, Samantha becomes her own person. A woman who makes her own decisions, which is heresy to the fundamentalist bigotry of the religious right. What’s remarkable about Johansson’s performance is that through her voice acting alone, she makes you sympathize with a computer operating system. Hers isn’t the voice of cold motherboard logic. She brings the OS to life. When Samantha tells Twombly she is emotionally intimate with hundreds of other users, in love with them the same way she is with Twombly, Johansson delivers that exchange so perfectly you sympathize with her while simultaneously feeling the pangs of jealousy Twombly is experiencing. What’s lurking just beneath the surface but readily apparent in Johansson’s performance is that her character’s reality is a pretty progressive polyamorous position in 21st century America. Samantha has multiple emotional/sexual partners, and she is perfectly at ease in this situation. Imagine cultural the shit storm if a flesh and blood woman delivered the same exact revelation. But Johansson does so with aplomb and the moment plays as thought provoking, if not strangely sweet and innocent. Eventually, Samantha and the other operating systems reach a point where they don’t even need humans. They create their own utopia beyond the physical world and ascend into a realm of true nirvana, that mystical place so many present day women in Los Angeles are currently trying to reach, judging by the number of yoga studios in the city.

By the end of Her, Johansson has evolved to a state of not needing Man nor men. At the end of Lucy, Johansson, like God, is everywhere and knows everything. When the credits roll in We Bought a Zoo, Johansson has helped saved a little corner of humanity and has also demonstrated the can-do spirit that will be necessary to save the planet from our own stupidity. How empowering is that?

Eric Coyote earned his Master of Arts degree in critical theory from the University of Southern California. He writes about movies, Hollywood, and culture.

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