Reviewed by Danny Sarnowski
In Lucy, his "philosophical action movie," Luc Besson has officially given up on any adherence to genre movie structure. Besson, best known to American audiences as the writer-director of Taken and The Fifth Element, has been quietly saturating the global film market with rote, by-the-numbers flicks for years. For every Taken or Leon: The Professional he has made, we've also been hit over the head by From Paris with Love and 3 Days to Kill. His movies are usually made for relatively little money (by Hollywood standards), feature aging stars or up-and-coming talent, and are shot internationally. While his earlier films packed real punch (Leon is a pretty great picture and The Fifth Element is eclectic fun) his recent films have become a paint-by-numbers affair. As the opening titles begin, you know exactly what to expect, when to expect it, and how things will shape up by the end of the picture. If you've seen a trailer or a poster, you get the idea.
With Lucy, Besson fell in love with an idea. He took that idea, ran with it, and convinced some talented people to come along for the ride. He also assembled a pretty incredible marketing team, as the film's domestic opening weekend box office gross would attest. In his defense, the idea is intriguing: What would happen to a human who could suddenly utilize 100% of their neural capacity? Unfortunately, the answer that Besson provides grows increasingly more ridiculous as the tale unfolds. And, like stage magicians for decades before him, Besson disappoints us with what is ultimately a tame trick.
The opening is good. Lucy, played by Scarlett Johansson, is pretty and sort of dumb. She has begun dating a skeevy, dirty-looking, pathetic creep who is some sort of bag man or drug mule. He tricks her into carrying a suitcase into a drop with a mysterious businessman. Besson uses cut away shots to a nature scene of a leopard stalking its prey intercut with the action as Lucy tries to deliver the package. This film assemblage is oddly affecting. Its a trick that the director uses throughout the film and, honestly, I dug it.
The drop quickly devolves into a full-blown nightmare complete with the loser boyfriend being killed, Lucy being abducted, and dead bodies being desecrated by a highly creepy crime boss. Johansson is great in these first 30 minutes. She plays terrified very well and it is sort of a treat to see her play a weak, frightened character. We have become so used to seeing her play strong, badass women who fear nothing and beat the snot out of larger foes. As you've seen from the trailer, Lucy is knocked unconscious and awakens to find that she has become an unwitting drug mule. She has a bag of a mysterious new drug sewn into her stomach and a mission to take the drugs out of the country. This whole set up is pretty scary and Besson has built a satisfying base upon which to play out the rest of the movie.
Lucy, instead of being taken to the airport so she can transport the drugs, is (for some reason) chained to a wall in a back room of a nasty restaurant. She gets the crap kicked out of her and has the bag of drugs inside her ruptured in the process. As the drugs cascade through her system, she undergoes a radical transformation. Besson suspends gravity throughout the scene to drive home how foreign this radical evolution is.
When Lucy awakens, she has already begun using more of her brain than any human in history. The effect of this is to remove her, slowly, from her humanity. This causes Johansson however, to drop back into nearly mute, monotone, badass-ery mode that she has played before. Her distant, robotic, fearless heroine just looks bored. And her mission - to retrieve the other packages of drugs sewn into the other mules, so she can use all the drugs before she dies - is less than inspiring. Morgan Freeman pops up, looking really old, as a neural scientist with theories about brain capacity utilization and the impact a jump could have on human beings. Lucy connects with him and, while a French police force ineptly tries to "cover her" from a Taiwanese mob of trained killers armed with machine guns and rocket launchers, she explains the mysteries of the universe. Oh, she also becomes a black sludge which can eat computers while building advanced ones to store all of her incredible knowledge. And she can teleport. And time travel. And explore the birth of man and the dawn of time and the reaches of the universe.
Besson had me going. I was keeping up as Lucy began her mission and her increased brain power gave her a lack of fear, freedom from pain, and the ability to manipulate her body. I was even, somehow, OK with her having control over magnetic and radio waves, and other humans' bodies. This seemed a strong set up for a director who has sporadically shown he can navigate a pretty decent action scene. This should have provided Lucy with a "certain set of skills" that we could watch her unleash on various sleezebags for the next 90 minutes. Instead, he lost me around the time she freaks out on a plane and becomes a loosely connected pile of dust/ash/particles that blows away. Apparently, accessing more of your mind means that your entire physical being just disintegrates. So, you know, there's a downside to consider.
The rest of the movie is just her working to get in front of Morgan Freeman and some colleagues so that she can teach them. And then grow into/hatch a supercomputer. Which grows a USB drive with stars on it. And then vanish into time and space. To add insult to this serious injury, there is a lack of action in this action movie. It's like a whole movie about a fantastic Ferrari which never gets driven. This movie is premise and no pay off. The last 15 minutes are like outtakes from The Cosmos (a show you should have watched, by the way).
- The first 30 minutes are pretty cool. Terrifying situation, good acting from Johansson.
- The Taiwanese villain, played by Choi Min-Sik, is creepy and affecting.
- A few cool scenes of Lucy using her powers. Although the moment she shoots a patient on an operating table so that she can borrow the surgeons was the highpoint of the movie for me.
- The last 30 minutes. While there is ostensibly action taking place around her, it is a total let down to keep Lucy locked away in a class room.
- Her growing into a black, Venom-like glob eating and then pooping out computers.
- Lucy time traveling back to the dawn of man to interact with "Lucy" the first human female. Oh, then almost getting eaten by a dinosaur. Yes, you read that correctly.
- For a movie about a character who uses 100% of her brain's capacity, it was disappointing how much of our own we needed to use to enjoy it. Besson sets up a cool genre premise and loses his mojo in the middle of the film. Grade: C