In Ghost in the Shell, Scarlett Johansson plays an elite government-issued cyborg known as Major whose body has been replaced with cybernetic parts — but her human brain is still intact. She's neither human nor robot; she's adrift somewhere between. And that's a lonely place to be.
But when a mysterious cyberterrorist named Kuze hacks into Major's brain, causing her to experience glitches and abnormal flashbacks to her previous life, she begins to question the esoteric nature of her own existence. What makes us human — our physical being or our experiences? The notion of human identity is at the center of the cyberpunk film and the groundbreaking 1995 anime that inspired it. For Johansson, that meant exploring Major's sense of detachment between the real and synthetic through the character's physicality.
"You start to think about what it would mean to have a human brain inside an entirely machine body," the actress told MTV News. "For most people, you walk across a room, and you don't think about the neurological communication that happens between your body and your mind, but if those two things were not immeshed, what would that look like? There's nothing superfluous about the movements of the character."
Of course there was one movement that Johansson wouldn't mind never doing again: wall runs. At the start of the film, Major crashes an assassination attempt on a Hanka Robotics official and takes out a few cybernetically-enhanced men in the process — by running across a wall with her automatic weapon blazing. The stunt involved heavy wire work, which, aside from being painful, "goes against any of your intuition," Johansson explained.
"You're moving forward and something else is pulling you back and guiding your direction, and you're just like, No, I just want to go over there! You're also fighting gravity at the same time and operating a weapon. Everything about that move is hard. I just hated that day. There was also never enough time to practice everything. So a lot of it was like, 'Here's a fully automatic weapon. It's 3 a.m. — go!'"
While the stunt work was physically taxing, according to the actress, it did provide a much-needed release from the Major's own existential crisis.
"It gives you something to focus on other than the emotional challenge of playing this character," she said. "I know it seems crazy, but it's kind of a relief sometimes."