Directed By: Luc Besson
Written By: Luc Besson
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Min-sik Choi
Wow, this year has been full of some ambitious filmmaking. Movies like Under the Skin have challenged the boundaries of cinema to show that art should not abide by any sort of rules or regulations. Snowpiercer was prime evidence that outlandish concepts allow creativity and fun to flourish. Now even filmmakers who have been primly associated with straightforward movies are getting in on the act.
Based on the marketing and Luc Besson’s name some may assume Lucy will be the latest Taken clone where a scantily clad Scarlet Johnasson travels around Europe bludgeoning random thugs for our mind numbing amusement. In fact that is not the case as Lucy shows even old directors can learn new tricks. Besson uses a La Femme Nikita set up with a Tree of Life follow through as he focuses on some subversive existential questions amidst all the gun fights, car chases, and explosions. Ambitiousness is something to be admired, but in this instance it may have been too overpowering for the narrative to completely grasp. Interesting questions are asked…and answered. The justification and logic behind those answers are where the issues reside.
In the film Scarlet Johnasson plays Lucy, who happens to share the same name as the first known woman—a fact the film overtly points out. Lucy is your normal everyday woman living up life in South Korea in all the wrong places. Due to her connection with a sleazy drug trafficker she gets kidnapped and forced to smuggle a new synthetic drug called CPH4. This drug takes the same chemical mothers use to give life to their developing babies and gives full-grown adults increased brain function and of course a killer high. In order to get these drugs passed customs they sewn inside Lucy’s abdomen for safe keeping. During the process the bag rips unleashing the drug into her system. Instead of killing her it opens up her mind and increases her cerebral capacity to previously unforeseen heights. Her biggest dilemma becomes not how to pay back her captors, but how to understand her new-found gifts and what should she do with them.
One of the biggest hurdles one will need to get over to enjoy this film is the massive conceit the entire premise is built upon. Countless people have already pointed out that the idea humans only use 10% of their brain is nothing more than a myth or misunderstanding of how the brain functions. By no means is this the first Science Fiction concept to misrepresent actual science. Contrary to popular belief you do not get superpowers after being exposed to radiation. What is different about Lucy though, is that it presents the idea as Scientific fact and builds its entire thematic angle on that idea. Personally, while I found it problematic, it worked enough within the structure of the film for it not to be gigantic problem.
That is partially due to the way it is approached. It is like seeing what would happen if one person could treat the entire world like their own personal Matrix. This leads to some intriguing imagery as Lucy can manipulate the world like one giant tablet placing and putting anything or anyone where she would like. If only I was granted these powers during morning rush hour. It would surely make commuting to work a lot easier and more enjoyable.
In addition to being able to manipulate sound waves, matter, time, and space Lucy is able to access every aspect of her memory, which leads to a rather unexpected but inspiring moment where she calls her mother expressing the intense sensation she is undergoing. It is one of the few times Johnasson’s acting talent is fully utilized as she expresses both the fear and euphoria of her new-found life. Luc Besson’s script nearly derailed the moment with a comment about the tasting of a mother’s milk. Luckily, Johasson was able to make that comment sound elegant.
Not surprisingly Besson was unable to use a light touch. To his credit this does not feel like quite like anything he has done before. Sure Fifth Element had its own brand of craziness and colorful visuals. What it did not have was the slickness of Lucy. Besson used a great deal of quick and abrupt cuts with non-sequitur imagery to announce you are about to undertake something different. In true Besson fashion the imagery of a cheetah pouncing on a gazelle as Lucy is kidnapped is unquestionably on the nose—in a way that was more of a wink to the audience than an attempt to be clever. That type of imagery dissipates as the movie progresses being replaced with a professor, played by Morgan Freeman, reviewing his research on the human brain to correspond with Lucy’s increasing power.
This is where the movie loses its footing as it tries to tell a Science Fiction story with fantasy rules. Even Morgan Freeman teaching about echolocation of dolphins does not fully justify what this magical drug allows Lucy to do. As mentioned I can appreciate and enjoy the function of Lucy’s abilities, but why it is an issue here and not as big of an issue with something like a superhero film is this is trying to use this concept as a reason to examine the way humanity has treated the gift of life. It is neither outlandish enough to just be an excuse for entertainment, nor well-developed enough for its observations on life to feel earned.
As you can probably tell while reading this review Lucy is a movie I am struggling with. On one hand it incorporates a lot of what I admire about filmmaking. It takes a lot of risks and many of those risks pay off. This is not just hallow entertainment that we have seen time and time again. On the other hand there is no cohesion to what the focus is intended to be. What it wants to say and what it wants to be tend to change moment to moment and scene to scene. At the end of the day it comes down to one simple question. Should you watch this movie? While it is fundamentally flawed in many ways, there is no doubt in my mind the answer to that question is yes. Sometimes even when things are the most complicated it is as simple as that.