Directed by Luc Besson
Released in 2014
Lucy is an exhilarating liberation from sense — a slender, manicured middle finger to anyone who carped about Gravity’s jetpack physics or reassessed their love for a movie after watching one of those “Everything Wrong With…” videos on YouTube. To say this movie has plot holes or is “so dumb” is to say nothing critical at all; those are platitudes, facts, technical specifications. Watch Lucy on its own terms and enjoy a rare collision of 21st century style and themes with old-school, no-nonsense narrative economy. It moves faster than you can think and it’s all over in — have I mentioned?? — 90 minutes.
Scarlett Johansson is Lucy, a pretty much average, intellectually at least, American studying abroad in Taiwan. When we first meet her she is in the middle of some boring back-and- forth with her boyfriend until — being the scumbag his wiry beard and tinted shades telegraph him to be — he handcuffs a mysterious suitcase to her wrist, for immediate delivery to a Mr. Jang (Choi Min-sik, of Oldboy fame). Jang’s henchmen knock her out, surgically insert the contents of the case — a bag of blue crystallized drug called CPH4 — into her lower tummy and, for added macho awfulness, one of the goons gropes her while she is chained in a dingy room. Since she is a strong female protagonist, she wards him off, but since this is also a screw-the-patriarchy kind of action flick, he retaliates by kicking her in the abdomen. The bag inside her leaks and an animated camera flies through her arteries as blue crystals spill into her bloodstream, lighting up like fireworks and sending her into a convulsive, floating fit. But she survives, and Lucy 2.0 is born.
From this point on, Lucy does not waste a single gesture, glance or step. The drug in her system fuels her brain to reach its untapped potential — to go beyond our brain’s paltry efficiency, which Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman, Hollywood’s go-to for making nonsense sound smart) hypothesizes sits at 10 percent. In the midst of this initial action, director-producer-writer-animorph Luc Besson (Leon: The Professional, The Fifth Element) cross-cuts to Norman lecturing before a rapt university audience (i.e., us) about the possibilities of using 20, 40 and eventually 100 percent of the human brain. Telepathy, extrasensory perception and other powers he admits belong in the realm of science fiction could be tapped into, and sure enough Lucy wields all these and more as she avenges her kidnapping, quarantines the rest of the world’s CPH4 supply and, I don’t know, attains the infinite sum of universal knowledge. References to 2001: A Space Odyssey abound, and rarely does an action film overreach so spectacularly.
Besson throws everything at us with his hypermontage style. Footage of cheetahs stalking prey, laundry machines and dividing cells pop up sporadically for associative, not quite subliminal effect. It’s a bit much, but then so is the whole movie. The leaps of logic — to say nothing of the laws of physics — enhance the film’s kineticism, naturally, and even make sense, thematically. This is a movie about a woman who evolves to attain a divine plane of omniscience, and better she do things impossible, bizarre and batshit crazy and leave us scratching our heads than…not. On Letterboxd, Jake Mulligan writes eloquently, and soberly, of how this is one of the only true “superhero movies” ever made. I’m all on board, and my only annotation is that ludicrous genre fare such as this may be the only proper vehicle for cinematic explorations of divinity: The only way to do it right is for it, in the end, to not fit together so neatly, and better have fun doing so than harden our theater seats into pews.
There are also car chases (note, plural) where coupes screech across asphalt on their sides and taxis catapult with a flick of Lucy’s wrist. But what makes Lucy good cinema and Transformers 4, Michael Bay’s undeniable talents aside, just a headache? Brevity is the soul of wit, and so Besson’s quick cuts keep action scenes short, breathless, lethal. And because of this tactical precision in the editing room, and a relatively conservative (or perhaps unnoticeable) use of special effects, Besson maintains a sense of plausible reality in spite of all the implausible going-ons. You will laugh throughout, and rest assured that is intended.
If I am overrating Lucy at all, it is because I am considering it in the context of Hollywood movies today, and especially their norms for screenwriting. The industry now values the likes of Damon Lindelof, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, who suffocate any momentum their stories stumble upon with relentless qualifiers, asides and blatant exposition so to keep the plot hole warriors on IMDb at bay. In the end, movies like Prometheus, Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol and the new Star Treks are overlong, pedantic and, yes, still rife with all sorts of lapses in character motivation and logical continuity. Action cinema just takes itself so seriously these days.
There’s a moment in Lucy that takes place in an airplane bathroom, and it comes out of nowhere. I love that the movie made no attempt to explain it or incorporate the power she attains until the very end — and even then, only implicitly. This movie is uncut, color-coordinated nonsense revolving around an ass-kicking heroine, but it’s also a bit more: As the story plows to its end, Lucy gets smarter, kills less (that’s for the boys to keep up, as the futile battle scenes at the end commiserate) and supersedes her physical female form. Godard famously said, “All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl,” to which Lucy agrees, only with some crucial additions.
Three makes a trend, for Scarlett Johansson’s last three projects, outside of those in the contractually-obligated Marvel machine, mark a conscious redefinition of her image. Objectified and fantasized over more than most, she has now played three non-humans in a row with Her, Under the Skin and Lucy. Once the drug takes in this film, she remarks in soulless monotone how she no longer feels fear, pain or desire: “All things human fading away.” Besson fixates on her with many loving close-ups, but for once you feel she has found a director and a project that meets her on her own terms.
4 Stars Out of 5
This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here.