Lucy isn’t fun enough to be a straight-up action movie, and it isn’t smart enough to be the science fiction romp writer-director Luc Besson intends. With The Fifth Element, still the filmmaker’s best work, Besson channeled his inner-14-year-old in giddy creative mode, hurling everything he came up with at the wall, according to some mysterious yet weirdly organic intuitive logic. Here, it’s more like 14-year-old Besson stumbled across some warmed over science fiction ideas from two decades ago and – being as they’re new to him – concluded they must be new to everyone else as well.
Lucy’s conceptual linchpin is this notion that human beings only use ten percent of their brain capacity. I’ve heard this before, you’ve heard this before. Is it true? I doubt it [it isn’t -ed].
At any rate, this lack of full brain usage becomes an issue when Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) – a young American woman living in Tapei – gets suckered by her unctuous boyfriend into serving as a drug mule for the Taiwanese mob. This early scene is grim and unnerving, as the boyfriend gets head-shot and an affectingly petrified Lucy is hauled up to a hotel penthouse to meet the mob leader Mr. Jang (an as-always creepily effective Min-Sik Choi). Not even Besson’s silly decision to intercut this sequence with footage of a cheetah taking down an antelope can ruin things (because Lucy’s the prey and Jang is the predator, get it?!)
Lucy awakens in a hotel room to find the mob has cut open her stomach, inserted a packet of mysterious blue powder, and stitched her up. Her job, if she wants her family to live, is to get the drugs into the US.
Lucy isn’t terribly smart at this stage, but she is tenacious. So when one of the mob underlings feels her up, Lucy clocks him, and earns a few kicks to the stomach for her troubles. That breaks open the packet of mysterious blue power – and in turns out that, at high enough dosages, the stuff unlocks all that unused brain capacity. The results are what you’d expect: Lucy suddenly becomes a cool, unflappable, and inerrant strategic thinker, and an expert deployer of precision violence. She quickly gains access to all sensation, no matter how small, and all previous memories. She’s able to see energy flows in living beings and electrical signals. Pretty soon she starts to fear for her humanity.
There’s a moving scene when Lucy – far enough along in her transformation to have immediate access to all sensation and every last memory, but still overwhelmed by emotion at the experience – calls her mother. Besson is smart enough to just plant his camera in front of Johansson and not move it, as what is clearly a goodbye of some form or another plays out.
Unfortunately, Besson also loses that thread pretty quickly. For the second half of the film, Lucy is completely detached. You get the sense that inner-14-year-old Besson thinks of her as a sexy badass. At one point, she coldly kisses a cop (Amr Waked) who’s helping her out, saying “a reminder.” But it doesn’t translate into sexy badassery.
What humanity the film has is then supplied by Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman), who’s developed some theories about what would happen if human beings unlocked all that brain power, including telekinesis. Why would power over matter be included, other than the universal authority of Freeman’s baritone? I haven’t the slightest idea.
But Lucy realizes she needs some guidance, so she tracks Norman down. Besson also has some early fun with Norman’s subplot, cross-cutting between Lucy’s story, a seminar the professor is giving on his theories, and a countdown to 100 percent brain usage. He also throws in a reference to Lucy, the human ancestor unearthed in Ethiopia, along with some inchoate thematic linkages to evolution, suggesting Johansson’s Lucy is herself the first of a new species – presumably a quasi-god of some sort.
All of which is fine, and maybe people who didn’t grow up as sci-fi nerds will find the movie more compelling. But speaking for myself, I was three steps ahead of Lucy’s ideas the whole time.
It’s a French production, and apparently the most expensive movie this particular company has ever made. You can see it on screen: Lucy is quite good to look at, all the actors are game, and Besson and his post-production crew shoot and edit with a tight and well-paced panache. There’s a pretty cool car chase halfway through that shows off Lucy’s newly-found precision driving ability (along with Besson’s creepy disregard for human life). And to it’s credit, it’s a blessedly short and punchy film.
But like I said, it’s also weirdly timid, and never goes for broke with either its sci-fi concept or its action. The concept and the script are ultimately a mediocrity, a failure which can probably be hung around the neck of Besson himself.
To be perfectly frank, the best part of Lucy is the beginning in Taiwan, when Besson hurls his audience headlong into a situation of primal fear and comprehensible logistics, and when Johansson is still playing someone recognizably human. I would much rather have watched a Besson-helmed film about how that Lucy figured and/or fought her way out of her predicament, and dropped the whole “blue god powder” angle entirely.