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A fantasy about unlocking 100 percent of the brain’s potential that expects viewers to be using just 2 or 3 percent of their own gray matter, Luc Besson‘s Lucy plays more like a big dumb superhero flick than sci-fi: The powers Scarlett Johansson gains when given full access to her brain quickly outstrip anything one can imagine 3 pounds of skull-bound neurons and synapses being able to do.
Besson’s script offers neither the well-drawn character dynamics nor the clear motivations of a decent comic book origin story, and as it is quickly clear that no baddie has much chance of stopping Lucy, action sequences carry little weight. A top-shelf cast and the (fading) memory of Besson’s action hits will help the picture at the box office, but word of mouth is unlikely to keep it alive long after a strong opening weekend.
Johansson’s character begins as a party girl studying in Taipei whose new boyfriend (Julian Rhind-Tutt) is involved in bad stuff. Thanks to him, she winds up being an unwilling drug mule for Jang (Choi Min-sik, making the most of a role that forces him to speak through interpreters). A big bag of a superdrug called CPH4 is sewn into her guts, awaiting transport to new markets in Europe. But the bag springs a leak when Lucy is roughed up by her captors, entering her system in such quantities (cue fun CG shots of cellular-level transformations) that it activates huge chunks of cranial real estate she’d never been able to access before — like that little-known lobe that lets you turn off gravity when it suits you.
Helpfully, Besson has been cutting between Lucy’s story and an academic lecture in Paris where researcher Samuel Norman (Morgan Freeman) has been hypothesizing about the very thing that is happening to her, making remarkably specific predictions about what might happen if humans were able to use more than the 10 percent we currently use (a myth, by the way) of the magnificent supercomputers in our heads. His ideas, like some of the film’s other early scenes, are illustrated with cutaways to nature footage suggesting the ways in which all of Earth’s creatures are interconnected, governed by the same laws. Think Luc Besson doing The Tree of Life.
The early stages of Lucy’s transformation offer plenty of kicks and even a touching moment or two: After making her badass escape from Jang and his thugs, she struts into the nearest hospital’s operating room, shoots the patient on the table — a glance at the X-rays told her the patient’s brain tumor was inoperable — and has a surgeon pull out the remaining drugs planted inside her. Forgoing anesthesia, she borrows the surgeon’s phone and calls her mother while he cuts her open, describing what’s going on in her head. “Mom, I can feel everything,” she says as the camera almost imperceptibly rocks; sensations and emotions stretching back to her birth are available to her, triggering what proves to be almost the last human-like response she has in the film.
From here on out, Johansson’s performance grows colder and more analytical. Besson doesn’t let her become as persuasively alien as she is in Under the Skin, but he doesn’t want a human, either. Lucy sets out to round up other batches of the drug and get to Paris, where she can let Dr. Norman see his theories in action. Why do this, one wonders, when in a matter of minutes she has already read his thousands of pages of research and surpassed his understanding?
Plenty of films and novels have envisioned what would happen if we gained conscious control over our entire brain. While most would probably make a real neuroscientist cackle uncontrollably, it’s hard to recall one whose ideas were more laughable than this one. We may roll with the film as its heroine learns Taiwanese over the course of a cab ride or sees the electromagnetic spectrum of cellphone calls, swiping through them as if she were reading their conversations on a touchscreen. We may even buy it when she’s able to change her body at will — sure, growing a webbed hand would take some time and fuel, but at least a body’s cells are controlled by its brain. But the film gives not the slightest justification for Lucy’s increasingly godlike abilities, which soon include time travel and levitation. Every now and then, a nugget of real philosophy is dropped into the screenplay, but it’s surrounded by so much blather that even a generous viewer has trouble using it to justify what Lucy experiences.
Even more damning in an action film, Besson doles out powers in a way that nullifies much of the drama to come. Once we’ve seen this woman put an entire room of people to sleep with the wave of a hand, why would we be worried for her when a smaller gang is pointing guns at her? (And why wouldn’t she just pull the same trick here, instead of wasting her time with showier and less believable feats?)
The movie occasionally attempts to make Lucy’s quest accessible to mortal viewers. Though she doesn’t need the assistance of a French cop named Del Rio (Amr Waked), for instance, she keeps him with her as “a reminder” of her fading humanity. But the reality-based action (a long, wrong-way trip through Paris traffic; a showdown with gangsters who want their drugs back) feels irrelevant to what the film really wants to show us. Unfortunately, though it concludes with a line suggesting Lucy has finally found all the answers, Lucy never tells us what the question is.
Production company: EuropaCorp
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Min-sik Choi, Amr Waked, Julian Rhind-Tutt
Director-Screenwriter: Luc Besson
Producer: Virginie Silla
Executive producer: Marc Shmuger
Director of photography: Thierry Arbogast
Production designer: Hugues Tissandier
Costume designer: Olivier Beriot
Editor: Julien Rey
Music: Eric Serra
Rated R, 90 minutes
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