Lucy, the comeback blockbuster for Luc Besson is every bit as bonkers as you’ve heard, but with a brain-frying lack of basis in reality, a far cry from the deadly assassin form of Leon, promised by the marketing and hype from across the pond.
The persistent myth that we only use 10% of our brain sets up this preposterously propulsive premise, in which the ingestion of a synthetic drug steadily allows a vengeful young woman to access the full 100% of her brain function, unlocking the kind of superhero powers that would make all the assembled Avengers jealous.
The high concept is mostly just high, which accounts for the dorm room high-mindedness of a sequence in which Lucy, after finally achieving 100% intellectual nirvana, is flung back through the history of mankind to understand her place in it, shortly before transcending mankind altogether in another God-like form.
It’s commendable and exciting in this age of routine franchising, to find a multiplexer quite as mad as Lucy, but this is brain-exploding sci-fi in brain-dead packaging; the shoot-em up scenarios and characters Besson positions around moments of under the influence soul-stirring having all the directorial imagination, out-of-the box staging and visual execution of an Expendables sequel.
Surprisingly (and somewhat disappointingly given that this has been sold as a Crank-style actioner), Lucy‘s nutty philosophical inquests about the origins of the modern human soul are far more successful than the limp standoffs and totally uninspired car chases, which are all just as generic as the many Friday night screen fillers Luc Besson has lent his name to as a writer/producer (3 Days to Kill, Colombiana, From Paris with Love).
That the pseudoscience is sillier than Werner Herzog eating a shoe to support independent filmmaking, is all the more credit to Scarlett Johansson’s performance; in its way every bit as nuanced and alien as her turn in Under the Skin earlier this year. Lucy starts off a dumb blond drug mule, and when the gangsters she’s been roped into delivering a suitcase for turn on her, she’s more terrified in this one scene than Nicole Kidman, the modern master of paranoid panic, managed for the entirety of Before I Go to Sleep. We’re not watching exaggerated actorly alarm, but one woman’s genuine fear for her life. Amidst all the screaming mafia stereotypes it’s unbearably tense, even moving.
After the packet of CPH4 crystals sewn into her stomach by her captors explodes, Lucy’s now super advanced cortex and enhanced abilities (telepathy, telekinesis, mental time travel) turn her into a coldly efficient killing machine, caring nothing for the innocent bystanders who get in the way of her payback. As her intelligence increases further, there’s a thirst for knowledge and how best to use it, followed by a sacrifice for the greater good and a consideration of what her ordeal and superior knowledge should teach the rest of humanity. None of these nonsensical shifts are subtle or even plausibly connectable, yet Johansson shifts gelastic gears with imperceptible ease. If the film’s ludicrous lapses in logic never add up, its leading lady works hard to make it all make sense emotionally.
Combine this with Scar-Jo’s alluring strut in the form fitting dresses of Olivier Bériot (every costume change in the film is breathtaking) and you have both brains and beauty in a film that’s not even 10% as smart as it thinks it is.
First published by Vérité Film Magazine on September 10, 2014