Directed by: Luc Besson.
Written by: Luc Besson.
Starring: Scarlett Johansson (Lucy), Morgan Freeman (Professor Norman), Min-sik Choi (Mr. Jang), Amr Waked (Pierre Del Rio), Julian Rhind-Tutt (The Limey), Pilou Asbæk (Richard), Analeigh Tipton (Caroline), Nicolas Phongpheth (Jii).
I wanted to like Luc Besson’s Lucy much more than I actually did. It’s rare to encounter a would-be summer action blockbuster that has this many ideas, that goes in such strange and unexpected directions and is as visually daring as this film is. Yes, the premise of the movie is based on a fallacy – that humans only use 10% of their brain power, which scientists everywhere agree is just not true. But what Besson does with that premise is still inventive, original and different. Besson himself has probably given the best shorthand to describe the movie – the beginning of Besson’s own The Professional, the middle of Nolan’s Inception and the ending of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. I also couldn’t help but think of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life at times in the movie. Blockbusters in 2014 typically do not draw comparisons to Kubrick or Malick – but Besson’s does. But another description that I’ve heard often about Lucy also stands out – “it’s either the dumbest smart movie of the year or the smartest dumb movie”. I’m still not sure which one is true.
The movie opens in China, with party girl Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) with her new boyfriend outside a hotel. He wants her to go inside, ask for Mr. Jang and deliver a suitcase to him. She doesn’t want to go, but soon the choice is no longer hers, and in she goes. She is taken up to a large suite, where she meets Mr. Jang (Min-sok Choi) – who is soaked with blood, and clearly doesn’t trust Lucy. Inside the case are a few packets of blue powder. They tell Lucy it’s a new drug – and it’s clear they expect her to be one of several mulls who are going to smuggle it into Europe. They open her up, and sew it into her intestines. However, before she leaves, the bag bursts – and it has a strange impact on her. She becomes smarter, she has abilities she never had before. She escapes – and seeks out Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman) – a scientist who has spent decades studying the brain and coming up with theories about what would happen if humans had access to more than 10% of their brains. He’s in France, and she wants to get to him – but of course Mr. Jang and his immense gang isn’t going to just let her get away.
Because this is a Luc Besson film – the director behind The Professional, The Fifth Element, La Femme Nikita and others – of course what follows is a bunch of action sequences. There are multiple gunfights, and thrilling car chase, and some hand-to-hand combat sequences – that become increasingly strange, as Lucy gains more brain power, and more power to control people and objects without touching them. These scenes are well handled – if there is one thing that Besson has always excelled at, its action sequences, and Lucy has some of the best of the year in that regards.
The movie’s final act – the so-called 2001 act – is like Kubrick’s masterpiece in that it looks at the nest step of human evolution, and leaves behind much of the typical genre trappings that had dominated the first two act of the movies. Things get strange – very strange – and goes off into completely unexpected directions. They are selling Lucy is an action movie – which is smart, because I cannot help but wonder what sort of audience would be there for this film if audiences knew where it is going. Personally, I found it exciting. I had no idea what was going to happen next, but I wanted to know.
Yet, it order to get there, Besson takes, I think, too many shortcuts. The stakes don’t quite seem very high at times, as it becomes clear that Lucy can pretty much do anything she wants – and if that’s the case, what real danger is she ever in? The movie doesn’t set any real ground rules for Lucy or her abilities, as she seems to be able to do whatever the hell the movie needs her to do at any point in the film. Johansson is great in the early scenes in the movie – scared, paranoid and touchingly human. But as soon as her abilities kick in, she becomes essentially a blank slate. It’s similar to her performance in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin in some ways – but without the resonance to the audience. She does what the movie requires her to do, but she becomes a not very interesting character as the movie progresses.
It’s also somewhat disappointing that Besson feels the need to wrap everything up in action sequences – right up until the end of the movie, taking an easy way out instead of pushing Lucy in more interesting ways. Yet, as flawed as I think Lucy is, I cannot help but admire it – and Besson for attempting something different in the midst of the summer blockbuster season. Yes, Lucy is kind of dumb. It’s also kind of smart.