The Only True Measure
Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Analeigh Tipton, Min-sik Choi, Mason Lee, Johan Philip Asbæk, Amr Waked, Frédéric Chau
US theatrical: 22 Aug 2014 (General release)
“I didn’t want to do a documentary. I wanted to do something that was entertaining—but with a catch.”
“What did you do to my stomach?” Alarmed at the still bloody incision in her belly, poor Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) does her best to stare down her captors. “Nothing!” comes the answer.
So yeah, the villains in Lucy are lying. They’re also using human mules (Lucy and three forgettable guys) to send their new designer drug from their headquarters in Taiwan to cities round the world. Blue and shiny and granular, the drug ends up not making it to its destination in Lucy’s case, for she’s beaten and kicked in the gut by a supposed guard who apparently was not instructed that the packet inside her was in fact super-valuable. Once kicked, the packet opens up into her body and, the non-documentary camera follows a flurry of explosions coursing throughout her blood and internal organs. Turns out, the drug has the effect of making her eyes blue like the crystals, from there, also making her really, really smart.
She’s so mart, in fact, that she googles Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman), an intelligence specialist at the Sorbonne who appears intermittently during the movie’s start lecturing a rapt academic audience on how precious little of their brains humans use (that would be about a mythic 10%). His pronouncements are in turn intercut with National Geographic-ish B roll of climate changes or copulating animals, each image made odious as it attends his voiceover. You might feel even more worried as Lucy gains more and more access to her brainpower, marked by increasing percentages that flash on screen. And this might seem to be a point, briefly: a smart girl is a scary girl.
Moreover, being a smart girl in a Besson movie, Lucy’s that much scarier—as well as that much more exotic and familiar, seductive and inexplicable—because she gets hold of lots of weapons. In the film’s logic, this has to do with her increasing ability to control other people’s minds, to move matter, and to harness all manner of electronic information. Knowledge is sort of power here, enhanced by guns.
Just so, Lucy appears a next step in either Johansson’s expanding expanding-consciousness mini-subgenre or Besson’s ongoing chicks-with-guns business. Within this framework, which is hardly persuasive, the movie is fun enough, a tumult of synapses and vectors and electric waves. Taken on those not-exactly-original terms, the movie is less about its plot than about its various contexts. When Lucy tracks down Dr. Norman, she asks what she should do with all the knowledge she’s accumulating, apparently by way of her cells dividing and multiplying. He suggests the obvious, that she should “pass it on,” like all knowledge has been passed on by populations and individuals (at least in his generalized, rarefied worldview).
Lucy’s version of such education finds form in three primary students, all men. First is her instruction to Dr. Norman, who pretty much immediately gives himself over to her brilliance. Next come her brief alliance with a French cop named Del Rio (Amr Waked), who’s so duly impressed by her identifications of the three mules and her subsequent super-driving and super-slamming of thugs that he follows every instruction she makes, intuiting, as cops can do in the movies, that she’s right and the Taiwan gangsters are not. And third, Lucy toys with the Taiwanese kingpin who kidnaps and uses her body for transporting his product, Mr. Jang. That she spares him when she shouldn’t only sets up for a continuing chase plot, where Jang, played by Choi Min-sik from Oldboy, seeks absolutely brutal vengeance against her is a sweet bit of cross-referencing—not only with regard to his movie but also to the broader notion of vengeance as motivation in so very many movies.
This might be closer to a point for Lucy, the essential illogic of movies, of illusion, of delusion. Following assorted lunatic set pieces—car chases, shoot-outs, body-slamming battles—Lucy at last lays out for Dr. Norman her insight, that the long-held human method of making order out of chaos by numbers is nonsense. He is, of course, wholly appreciative, his eyes going wide and his mind opened as he translates for the rest of us: “Time is the only true unit of measure!”
It’s not worth one moment of your time to try to parse his pronouncement, at least not with regard to measuring anything but movies. But when it comes to movies—broadly conceived—this seems almost profound. Time is the only way to measure. As Lucy begins careening from moment to moment, losing and reclaiming her physical shape (her face turning to goop during one nonsensical segment), finding her electric connections, she also careens between environments. So, she sits in a chair, like a movie-watcher, as her view changes from Times Square now to Times Square hundreds of years ago, from urban pedestrians who don’t even notice her to Native Americans who stare directly at her to dinosaurs who try to eat her—you might realize also that time is the most sensible way to measure movies, to get from here to Under the Skin and Her to The Avengers and Vicky Cristina Barcelona to Lost in Translation and Manny and Lo, or again, from now to The Fifth Element to Léon: The Professional and La Femme Nikita.
If they’re not all the same movie, they are awfully similar ways of measuring ideas and fears and illusions. Lucy is both more and less of the same as these slips and slides in time, often entertaining, wholly preposterous.