Editor’s Notes: Lucy opens in wide release today July 25th.
Luc Besson’s career post-The Fifth Element has focused primarily on writing and producing – mostly low- or middle-budget action-thrillers, some, of course, for aging actors with diminishing box-office clout – leaving directing duties to one of his many protégés. Besson’s occasional forays into directing, however, have been drab, forgettable affairs, the work of a bored, indifferent filmmaker. Besson’s last film, The Family, a mob-themed crime-comedy, dipped in and out of multiplexes with scant notice and even less commercial success. His latest, Lucy, however, has a bona fide, in-her-prime movie star, Scarlett Johansson, front and center, and, at least superficially, a superhero-themed premise perfect for a summer blockbuster. Unfortunately, Lucy is nothing less than an abject failure, the result of a scattershot, incoherent narrative, randomly assorted “big ideas,” a perfunctorily written central character, and meaningless, thrill-free set pieces.
Taken as a comedy, albeit a poorly directed one, Lucy becomes slightly more tolerable. Taken straight as a science-fiction/action film, however, Lucy falls short of tolerability.
Borrowing liberally, if not shamelessly, from other, better (and much better known films), Besson opens on a risibly awful scene featuring a proto-human (the other “Lucy” of the title, in case you’re wondering) as she casually sips water from a lake or pond. It’s the first sign of many that Besson may be playing an elaborate, costly joke at the expense of the audience. Taken as a comedy, albeit a poorly directed one, Lucy becomes slightly more tolerable. Taken straight as a science-fiction/action film, however, Lucy falls short of tolerability. The primary Lucy of the title, however, isn’t proto-human, but post-human (Johansson), a twenty-something college student studying something or other in Taiwan brutally forced to become a drug mule for a newly developed, mind-expanding designer drug. One unsanctioned surgery and a few swift kicks to the lower abdomen later and the drugs enter Lucy’s body, kickstarting the transformation from human to super-human.
Besson intercuts Lucy’s initial experiences with a lecture on brain evolution from a traveling American scientist, Professor Exposition (Morgan Freeman, doing that Morgan Freeman thing he does). Professor Exposition expounds on the scientifically invalid theory – here used as a linchpin for the admittedly absurd premise – that human beings only use 10% of their brains at any one time. Not coincidentally, the designer drug flooding Lucy’s bloodstream boosts her brain capacity (from 10% to 20%, etc., illustrated via title cards reminiscent of powering up in videogames). Within minutes, she’s dancing on the ceiling (or rather contorting on the ceiling) before her new abilities, including the usual assortment of enhanced strength, faster reflexes, language acquisition (she can speak Mandarin and Cantonese, a power obviously inspired by Keanu Reeves’ “I know kung fu” scene in The Matrix, one of Lucy’s key influences), and all-around badassery. She dispatches a room full of thugs, including two potential rapists, before escaping.
Whether intentionally or not, Lucy, short on backstory or motivation, emerges as an amoral “Ugly American,” cold-bloodedly shooting a patient in a hospital (no worries, he was going to die anyway) and shooting a taxi driver for the unpardonable sin of not speaking English (a joke that reeks of racism and xenophobia).
With superpowers unmatched by firepower or anyone her equal – a significant problem since it robs the film of anything approaching meaningful stakes – Lucy makes her way back to her chief kidnapper’s high-rise lair. That kidnapper, Mr. Kang (Choi Min-sik, Oldboy), represents Lucy’s major, non-narrative problem: The stereotypical, borderline racist depiction of non-Europeans and/or non-Americans, one of Besson’s weaknesses as a filmmaker. Mr. Kang is an all-out sadist, an emotionless sociopath typical of Besson’s lower budgeted films, a standard-issue, cartoon villain (albeit an R-rated cartoon), surrounded by mute, indistinguishable, ultimately dispensable henchman in black suits and ties. They’re just as kill-happy as their boss, but even their individual and collective fates fail to carry even the slightest jolt due to Lucy’s easy way with them.
Whether intentionally or not, Lucy, short on backstory or motivation, emerges as an amoral “Ugly American,” cold-bloodedly shooting a patient in a hospital (no worries, he was going to die anyway) and shooting a taxi driver for the unpardonable sin of not speaking English (a joke that reeks of racism and xenophobia). Besson eventually dispenses with Taiwan as a backdrop, using hard-earned tax credits to send Lucy and with her, the film, to several European locations, predictably ending in Paris, Besson’s home-turf, for a meet-and-greet and info-dump session with Freeman’s professor character, a disquisition about, among other things, time, space, and evolution, and a time- and space-travel segment inspired (if not outright ripped-off) by Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and, of course, H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. Besson fills in gaps with shots taken from Baraka and Samsara (among others).
It’s possible, probable even, that Besson wrote and directed Lucy under the influence of mind-altering drugs. If he did, he made the cardinal mistake of mixing some high-grade weed with low-grade LSD (or vice versa). Otherwise there’s no explanation for the jumbled, disjointed, fun-free result. Of course, the concept of “fun” isn’t an objective one, verifiable through rigorous empirical testing or group consensus, suggesting Lucy will likely find its share of vocal defenders (if it hasn’t already), eager to defend Lucy’s guilty pleasures (if any) under the cover of a borderline plausible theory or two.
Unfortunately, Lucy is nothing less than an abject failure, the result of a scattershot, incoherent narrative, randomly assorted “big ideas,” a perfunctorily written central character, and meaningless, thrill-free set pieces.