It’s an interesting premise: what if humans, who are limited to only being able to use 10 % of their brain power, have that potential unlocked? What would we be able to achieve? What would we use it for? Would we even be human anymore? Of course the entire premise is built on an incorrect assumption; humans use far more than 10 % of the brain, it’s science. But this is a movie-and more to the point a Luc Besson movie-so we let this little tidbit slide and merely ask the question, if Lucy uses more than 10% of her brain, is it worth paying to see?
Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) is an American student studying in Taiwan. A new boyfriend coerces her into delivering a briefcase to a local businessman, Mr. Keng (Oldboy’s Choi Min-sik), who is awaiting his delivery in a hotel. Lucy is dragged upstairs by Yakuza-esqe types after witnessing her boyfriend being shot, and after a spot of interrogation and finding the briefcase contains a new type of illicit drug, is knocked unconscious. When she awakens she finds she has undergone surgery and one of the four pouches of “bath salts” is now inside her belly. Given her passport, Lucy and four other mules are sent back to their respective countries to deliver the drug. En route, Lucy is accosted and in the struggle the bag splits, leaking the substance into her body. She finds herself possessed with enhanced awareness and abilities. Conscious of the expanding use of her brainpower, a newly empowered Lucy goes on a mission of revenge and also a search for the remaining three pouches, her enhanced intellect aware she will need them to maintain her expansion of brain usage to 100%. Along the way she seeks out a specialist in the human brain, Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman) to aid her understanding of her new talents.
Scientifically flawed, but a premise that should allow for some fun nonetheless, right? Well, kind of. Lucy is a well paced and at times entertaining film. From the opening, there is a nice balance between humor and tension. A quirky opening act has Lucy thrown into trouble by her lover, intercut with scenes from the Discovery Channel to underline certain emotional cues; think wildebeest rutting during flirtation or as she is seized by Keng’s men, or footage of a gazelle being surrounded by cheetahs. At times amusing, at others irritating, the question of whether this juxtaposition will help or harm the film is rendered moot as Besson soon dispenses with its use entirely. The beginning is also intercut with a lecture from Professor Exposition…sorry, Norman…who delivers to a rapt crowd his theories on how accessing more than 10% of the human brain would open up abilities such as telekinesis and telepathy. These two things are layered over each other and culminate in the drug release. 20% flashes on screen, and for a while Lucy has so much potential. This drug-fueled being swiftly eliminates her abductors and sets off ruthlessly in pursuit of her endgame. Throughout, Johansson delivers fine work showing a woman vastly elevated in her abilities but still with a scared human core, aware of how she is changing. Sadly this interest wanes as the movie continues and her mental abilities progress. Simply put, it peaks too soon.
For the latter portions of the film there is a air of detachment, where she is above threats, and indeed it feels like she is above the movie; we don’t get to see an unleashed spectacle. Her progress takes massive leaps with little clear reason behind how she suddenly knows advanced maths and physics principles. She goes from kick-ass woman to cold elevated being with little escalation; she just seems to KNOW things. Couple this with the quick pacing from Besson, and you are left wondering exactly what her motives are and what boundaries she has before the film descends into posing metaphysical questions in the middle of a meaningless gunfight. The only thing Luc Besson loves more than a gunfight is shoehorning a random Frenchman into his movies. Oh look, there’s Amr Waked as a cop assisting Lucy, because I guess Jean Reno was unavailable. Thankfully Johansson is not alone in trying to elevate the film, and Choi Min-sik is pretty great in his turn as the film’s “big bad.”
Again, we have a movie that largely hinges on the performance of one Scarlett Johansson, coming after incredible performances in Her (my favorite of 2013) and recently Under the Skin, which is destined to be one of my top picks of 2014. In fact, her performance here serves as a companion piece to the latter, where she portrays a cold, methodical hunter who slowly understands and appropriates facets of humanity. Here the reverse is shown, as Lucy progresses and begins to lose touch with her own emotions. Her transformation from terrified student to enlightened being is impressive, as is the later sadness from the increasing resignation to her fate. As mentioned, the immediate aftermath of the drug exposure is the most impressive stretch of the film, largely due to Johansson’s charisma. This peters away later as she (understandably) gives a flatter and more distant performance (reflective of her growing intellect); however, the rest of the movie fails to step up and compensate.
The problem with Lucy is that it is trying to be a pseudo-intellectual action movie. I enjoy the dumb fun of Besson’s earlier outing The Fifth Element, but here the silly fun is married to a attempt to be a stylish hi-brow film and it trips over its own feet. Mentions of the first human also being called Lucy (another fallacy), and posing questions about existence and immortality, are high and admirable aspirations; but when such themes are entertained in such a silly setting, it’s going to be hard to pull them off.
It unfolds pretty predictably, compounded by Professor Exposition (ahem…Norman) spelling out the exact course of Lucy’s future progress — basically a play by play of the entire film in the opening 5 minutes, which deflates momentum before it even begins. The other issue with the aspirations of the film and framing of Lucy’s potential is how the film seeks to be expansive but ultimately comes across as very restrained. Budget issues, perhaps? Some shoddy CGI effects of apes (this close to Dawn of the Planet of the Apes it’s particularly offensive) and dinosaurs and an Akira-esque finale further cement the feeling that Lucy may have been better served an an ambitious comic book rather than as a cinematic endeavor. It is not just effects (some of which are quite beautiful, I will admit) but the overall feel of the film. As an example, one scene sees Lucy confronted by five assailants in a corridor. The first four she levitates out of her way, leaving them floating in the air, and the fifth is impressively thrown through a wall. Building her up to be detached from the consequences of untold power makes such scenes confusing; why would she not throw ALL the men through a wall? There is no escalation, no real excitement or fear at her growing abilities. Restraint permeates the film when there should be a unleashing of kick-ass Lucy action.
Overall, Lucy has to go down as a disappointment. It is well paced and entertaining in parts and actually has some nice work from the cast, as well as directorial flourishes from Besson, but the ambition promised is never delivered. It is ironic a movie about the expansion of human potential feels so restrained.
Originally published at old.cinapse.co on July 25, 2014.