Writer/Director Luc Besson’s Lucy, where Scarlett Johansson plays a woman who becomes able to play god with a scientifically enhanced brain, is so dumb it’s actually kind of brilliant. Besson, who hasn’t directed or produced a satisfying action film since 1997’s The Fifth Element has created a film that is an absolute mess from start to finish, a scatterbrained head-trip of a movie convinced of its own profundity that somehow has more raw cinematic energy and flair than most Hollywood blockbusters.
Besson’s screenplay tries rather clumsily to reach towards big ideas such as the history of human consciousness, evolution and the meaning of existence but despite all of that the premise tying everything together is quite simple. A Taipei-based exchange student named Lucy (Johansson) becomes an unwilling mule for an experimental designer drug that accidentally ruptures and is then absorbed and coursing through Lucy’s veins, transforming her essentially into a videogame character with all the cheat codes to break the rules of time and space. Lucy’s journey is intercut with a lecture delivered by a professor (an ever relaxed Morgan Freeman) on the untapped possibilities of the human mind: Turns out we only use 10%! What might happen if we harnessed its full powers? And that’s when Lucy shifts from a kind of run-of-the-mill C-grade dumb movie to a dumb B-movie that has a grand time flying off the rails into the abyss of absurdity. There’s sincerity in Lucy that is quite admirable. Lucy shoots, kicks and uses mind voodoo on her quest to treat her condition and share her revelations about life, the universe and everything. There is an endearing insanity to the film that brings and helps to earn most of its ridiculousness. In the final moments, the film literally and figuratively collapses into a cacophony of sound & imagery as if the medium can’t contain the hackneyed insanity of the premise.
For the most part however, there are many enjoyably bonkers moments. A scene where Lucy forces a surgeon at gunpoint to remove the drugs from her bowels has her casually making a call to her mother to monologue about her transcendent existence in a way that would make even Matthew McConaughey’s True Detective character shake his head; during which we hear the sounds of the surgery by the way. There’s a shootout that inexplicably involves rocket launchers and disappearing blank white environments. In a move evocative of Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim film and the Jason Statham Crank exploitation films: handy title cards keep track of Lucy’s evolving brain power in increments of 10 percent emulating the progress of a player moving through a video game. The one thing that keeps Lucy from being generic in any way is its foregrounding a video game aesthetic with its narrative. For instance at one point Lucy defeats a group of skilled martial-arts opponents with a single hand-wave to levitate them comically. However it is the same sort of videogame elements that deprive the film of any sort of tangible drama or suspense. No one ever truly enjoys watching or playing through a videogame without any sort of challenge.
The film lacks drama so it might actually be appropriate for all of the actors and characters to be dull and flat. Johansson starts off the film with a generic “girl next door” act but when her character “evolves” it’s meant to evoke the cold & emotionless machine-like presence of Arnold Scwarzenegger’s Terminator instead it plays off as if Johansson is sleepwalking. The same could be said about every actor especially Morgan Freeman whose lines seemed to have been lifted straight form his character in Transcendence, a failed sci-fi thriller with a premise not too far removed from Lucy. Even Korean actor Choi Min-sik (Oldboy, I Saw the Devil) seems to be misplaced from another film entirely as the Korean gangster pursuing Lucy. Min-sik has few lines in the film as it seems his only purpose it to stand around and look the part. It’s a shame since the premise of the film could have used that extra cheesy B-movie charm from the actors.
I hesitate to label this a “stoner movie” (“Whoa dude, what if we could use like ALL of our brain capacity? I bet we could transform reality”) but it certainly simulates an experience of chemically-induced demeanor or at least hanging out with someone who is. Keep in mind that Lucy herself is on drugs, and were it not for the sincerity of the proceedings one might be inclined to believe Lucy is merely imaging that she is the most invulnerable, smartest motherf**er in the room, totally in control. I can tell you from 1st hand experience that many people in an altered state are often convinced they have opened up more of their brain, and they will likely never stop telling you about it. Hanging out with someone drunk or high up can be fun (and dangerous), and Lucy certainly can be fun. However more often than not they can also be irritating, and many times I was frustrated by how irritating Lucy was. When the film was content to take pleasures in its absurdity it was a joy but, when the film becomes convinced of its own profundity it becomes quite a drag.
Lucy is fast paced and mostly entertaining in its charming idiocy. However the film often thinks it’s saying big things, and lacks any sense of drama or tension to back up those claims. The ambition behind the film is certainly admirable and I’d much rather have bold films that fail to reach their heights than safe films content with mediocrity. However both are failures at the end of the day. If anything Lucy is what cinematic pretentiousness looks like – a dopey movie wearing a smarter material like an accessory. Lucy never really comes together but you can tell Besson’s trying to make something a little different, hence: Lucy is the kind of freewheeling mess movie audiences dare studios to try out more often.