Reviews

'Lucy' Entertains Despite Its Stupid Science

Lucy's idea of science is akin to a stoner complaining about how math doesn't really exist, but it does have an audacity that many sci-fi thrillers in the present day lack.


Lucy

Director: Luc Besson
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Amr Waked
Distributor: Universal
Studio: Universal
UK Release Date: 2015-01-12
US Release Date: 2015-01-20

For the past two years or so, Scarlett Johansson has spent much of her film career exploring what it means to be human. These movies include Her, where she gives a disembodied voice to a sentient operating system; Under the Skin, in which she plays an alien wandering the Scottish countryside; and even her work in the Avengers series as Black Widow, the assassin trying to wipe the blood from her moral ledger. It's especially impressive that during this time, Johansson seems to have become a genuine box office star, due not just to her work as the Black Widow, but her starring role in last summer's Lucy, a stupider but, in its way, no less heady than the sci-fi indies it followed. (It should be noted that it's also a bigger stand-alone hit than most of her non-Downey Avengers colleagues have seen).

Lucy, now on Blu-ray, also marks a comeback of sorts for writer-director Luc Besson, once a master of ass-kicking female pulp heroes, who has spent much of the past decade writing and producing movies about white men ass-kicking their way through middle age (with the occasional forgettable throwback to his lady-centric past, like Colombiana). Besson's best-known movie in America is probably The Fifth Element, which he allegedly began writing as a teenager, and Lucy marks a return to that adolescent impulsiveness, the kind of wacked-out sci-fi story unencumbered by an adult sensibility. The action seems more Earth-bound as Lucy (Johansson), who is living in Taiwan, gets roped into a drug deal by a sketchy sorta-boyfriend, ending in her knocked out and serving as a mule for a powerful new drug that allows users to access a greater portion of their brain (more on the questionable science in a moment). The bag she's smuggling tears, and a super-dose of the drug runs wild in her system, imbuing her with a variety of supposedly brain-based superpowers that would shame several of the Marvel heroes Johansson keeps company with.

Lucy varies Besson's girls-and-guns formula by making the action secondary. Johansson's character quickly becomes so powerful that her only real threat comes from herself, not hordes of assassins or a mere car chase. Despite its action-movie trappings, Besson seems to be aiming for something trippier and more poetic: when Lucy is first kidnapped, there's a neon-lit closeup of her eyeball that recalls 2001: A Space Odyssey, and throughout the film Besson cuts away to footage of animals in the wild to convey ham-handed metaphors about predators, prey, and evolution. Besson's Malickian evocations are pretty silly, about on par with the high-tech PowerPoint presentation scientist Morgan Freeman gives when he's explaining his research, which does triple duty as the movie's exposition, hook, and willful misrepresentation of science.

That misrepresentation concerns myths about "how much" of our brains we use, an irretrievably seductive idea even if it's mostly bunk. The Blu-ray release of the movie perpetuates those myths in "Cerebral Capacity: The True Science of Lucy", wherein Besson and a number of scientists (or, in the parlance of the feature's fudging, "some scientists") talk around the movie's inaccuracies and present them as rooted in research. Eventually, the talking heads admit, in a roundabout way, that the movie's "balance" of fantasy and reality relies on a lot of speculation for the latter component, focusing on what the human brain might be able to do if it could be trained to engage in super-multitasking, like the goofy multiple-laptop space-computing Lucy performs during a plane ride in the movie. The fact the film ignores that 90% of the brain does not go unused; different parts of the brain just do different things.

Stranger than its pretensions of scientific accuracy and thought experiments is Besson's willingness to bog Lucy down in the mechanics of its Eurotrash thriller roots. It's a more ambitious and better-looking Besson film, but it still has the smudgy fingerprints of his lesser work as a screenwriter and producer, namely the usage of a gaggle of anonymous evil Asians and a weary-copy sympathizer who might have made sense forming a grudging bond with Liam Neeson or Jason Statham, but feels entirely outside the concern of Lucy.

Yet even with these distractions, the movie is fleet, clocking in under 90 minutes (including credits!), and still finds time for moments of real beauty. In one startling, even moving scene, Besson keeps the camera mostly on Johansson's face as she, flush with her advancing powers, calls her mother and confesses that "I can feel everything" -- not referring to the sans-anesthetic surgery she's having (and which Besson occasionally cuts away to show) but her growing awareness of the world, and her newly far-reaching memories of her life as an infant, and in the womb. Johansson has sometimes been accused of acting in a monotone of open-mouthed blankness, but while Her showed how much humanity she could express with just her voice, Lucy shows how expressive that familiar face can be, wavering on the line between human and superhuman.

For every moment like this, there's plenty of balancing-out dialogue about how "time is the only true unit of measurement" that sounds like a stoner complaining about how math doesn't really exist, man, but Lucy maintains an audacity lacking from so many movies of its ilk. Besson may not be on the same level as Under the Skin or Her, but armed with his now-iconic star, sometimes he makes it onto their wavelength.

6

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