Lucy

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“NOW there is a god…”

Besson has been making action heroine movies for almost a quarter-century, going back to Nikita, which remains one of the most iconic and influential genre entries. The Messenger and Angel-A are the most obvious members of his filmography, but even when they’re not strictly in our wheelhouse, they often contain those aspects, e.g. The Fifth Element or Leon. The prospect of him returning to the field was an exciting one, but the end result doesn’t quite live up to what I’d hoped. And that’s discounting the fact, trotted out by a lot of lazy critics, that the entire film is based on a shaky premise – the whole “we only use ten percent of our brains” things is pure myth. I have no real issues with that. There’s no evidence for the galaxy having guardians either, and the same premise was an integral part of Defending Your Life, currently 96% fresh at Rotten Tomatoes.

lucy4No, my main issue is a failure to unleash the potential of the idea (rather than the human brain). The initial set-up is interesting and slick. Lucy (Johansson) is trapped into acting as a drug mule for a Korean mob-boss (Choi), but the package inserted into her stomach is breached, causing the contents to leak into her bloodstream, and triggering the gradual activation of the remaining 90% of her brain. Initially, she becomes self-aware, but her skills then increase exponentially, first to manipulating her environment, then the very fabric of time and space itself, before she vanishes entirely from our world. Freeman plays Professor Exposition Samuel Norman, whom Lucy contacts to… Well, I’m not really sure exactly why. Something about him being the guardian of the knowledge she acquires as her mind expands. Waked plays a French cop, who helps her get the entire global supply of the drug, needed for her to reach 100%. We get a literal score of her progression in this department, tabulated on screen between scenes.

I think this would have benefited from a more measured approach, rather than a headlong rush toward Lucy’s divinity: the journey is more fun than the destination. There’s a certain point here, perhaps half-way through, where she becomes entirely invincible, and that’s where this turns into an intellectual exercise, because no-one – least of all a bunch of Korean gangsters – is a credible threat any more. I would have had Lucy get a little taste of the drug, then spend most of the film exploring what life is like as a super-enhanced bad-ass, using her talents to acquire more of the drug. Perhaps have the film end as she cranks the proceeds into her veins, and only then quickly go all 2001 on the audience, as Besson does at much greater length here. That’s closer to what I was expecting, and may be the result of  publicity that seemed to set this up as an action flick with existentialist aspirations, when it’s really an existentialist flick with action aspirations.

lucy3While I’d have enjoyed the former more, there are no shortage of aspects to admire. Besson’s films are generally a lot of fun, and this delivers the level of visual style and polish we’ve come to expect from all his works, both directed and produced – the car-chase is particularly Bessonesque. Johansson is also good in the role, though Freeman seems faintly embarrassed to be there, as if he should instead be off narrating another Science Channel documentary. Credit is due too, for making an action movie which is not only R-rated, but with a heroine, a combination which has been a difficult sell in the past e.g. Haywire. Lucy has arguably become the first such to pass $100 million at the US box-office, depending on how you view T2, and I’m more than happy to see it succeed, even if any sequel resulting from its profitability is going to be answering some difficult questions!

Watching this, I was left with a frequent urge to yell the line at the top of the review, which is taken from a famous SF short-short story by Frederic Brown, about the perils of unfettered technology and artificially constructed deities. Lucy is the human equivalent, though according to Besson, “A simplified summary, which will conjure up the images in as few words as possible,” was that “The beginning is Leon: The Professional. The middle is Inception. The end is 2001: A Space Odyssey.” This overview probably explains why my entertainment level diminished as things went on, because I love Leon and regard 2001 as one of the most over-rated pieces of tripe in cinema history, containing spectacular visuals, but little or no heart. That’s what Lucy is sadly missing: you can see Johansson deliberately dialing back her humanity, the higher her percentage of brain function becomes. It makes sense, but you’re left with little reason to empathize with her; it’s like nothing so much as watching Superman being super, and there is no kryptonite in sight here to bring her back to the level of the audience.

Re-reading the above, it seems perhaps unnecessarily harsh. Make no mistake, this was a fun ride, and I was never bored. It may be a case of managing expectations here: if you’re happy with a film which builds to having the heroine sit on a chair for 20 minutes, before going all Neo on us for a finale, then this will be fine. But given Besson’s pedigree, combined with a trailer which made this seem more like the Black Widow film we’ve been promised than anything, I was anticipating something rather different. It’s not often I criticize a film for being too much brains and not enough brawn, yet this might be one such case.

Dir: Luc Besson
Star: Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Amr Waked, Choi Min-sik

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