Lucy (2014): Written and directed by Luc Bessen. Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Amr Waked, Choi Min-sik. Running Time: 89 minutes.
I suspect a great many people who saw Lucy (and the same may also apply to those who are planning to see it in the future) were expecting it to be nothing more than a high-octane action thriller starring Scarlett Johansson as a Black Widow mockup, using the debunked “we only use 10% of our brains” urban legend as a passing justification for Lucy being able to take down bad guys with increasingly Jedi-esque psychic powers. I know I certainly was, at least to some extent. To my pleasant surprise, that was not the case. While it is far from perfect, and could perhaps have done more with what is actually a pretty decent sci-fi set-up, Lucy is a fun and interesting visual ride, and is definitely worth taking the time to see.
The film does indeed start as a straight-up crime thriller- Lucy is an American study-abroad student (you can’t pretend to be this young forever, Scarlett dear) in Taiwan, who gets tricked by a friend into becoming the unwilling carrier of a package of neurotoxic drugs inserted into her belly. The series of scenes setting this up produced the most squeamishness I’ve felt in a movie theater thus far this year. The violence is brutally unflinching, and Scarlett perfectly captures the look of a terrified bird trapped in a cage. The sci-fi aspect soon kicks in, though, when one of the thuggish guards beats Lucy so violently (apparently unaware of what she’s carrying inside of her) that the bag with the drugs splits, causing the toxin to spill undiluted into her bloodstream. It is right around now that we learn, via a series of cutaways to a lecture being given by Morgan Freeman (because really, who else?), that this drug contains chemical properties that can jolt the human brain into unlocking more and more of its “potential.” And by potential, I mean basically the ability to do anything and everything required by the plot.
These scenes, especially at the beginning, also feature a great many shots of stock National Geographic footage centering on wildlife spliced in between the bits of dialogue, obviously meant to enhance/add symbolism to whatever happens to be going on in the narrative at that particular time. While the clips brought in are brutally lacking in subtlety, it’s an interesting effort on the director’s part, something you usually only see in pure arthouse fair, and I appreciated the visual variety it brings to keep things interesting to watch.
When she realizes what is happening, Lucy has a surgeon remove the remaining drugs from her system and contacts Morgan Freeman, hatching a plan to obtain from the other carriers the rest of the drugs so that Freeman can make a formula with them that will boost her brainvolution into overdrive, so that she can amass as much information on the nature of reality as possible and pass it along before…..well, it’s not entirely clear what will happen, at least at first. First, though, before any of that begins, she calls her mother. Realizing that the process she is undergoing is likely to be irreversible, and suddenly hyper aware of the true miracle of what mothers do for their children, she calls her mother from the hospital, and thanks her in detail for what she did for her growing up. It all centers around a line that, had Scarlett been any less sincere in her performance, would have reached new heights of oddball corniness. Here, though it’s properly affecting. It’s always good to see a movie selling itself on the action take a slow moment here and there to let us connect things together.
Although, as previously admitted, I wish the movie had played around a bit more with the concepts it introduces as plot points, and even the story does stretch itself thin by the end, I can’t find all too many reasons to complain. There is a nice visual style being brought to play here, culminating in a journey Lucy takes through time and space, including an encounter with her unspoken namesake, the proto-human female whose skeleton is now also known as “Lucy.” In a shot reminiscent of the Sistine Chapel, Lucy reaches out to touch proto-Lucy’s finger with hers. Is the movie implying that present-day Lucy herself becomes our God, or rather that even in a hyper-advanced mental state, she is still susceptible to the cultural sensitivities of her upbringing, unable to resist indulging in a moment latent with obvious symbolism?
I was never blown away by the movie, but it did give me some interesting ideas to chew over, and as the credits rolled I couldn’t help but think that it was a pity that most of the people I saw it with would probably feel no urge to think about the film on a level any deeper than, “Huh. Shit was cray-cray.” But I digress. If I spent more than a few passing moments worrying about the lack of intellectual curiosity amongst the general movie-going public, I would never again wish to see the light of day. To return, then, to the topic of this review. Lucy is definitely not the best of this year’s summer fare, and it in no way touches the intellectual heft of Scarlett’s other major non-blockbuster feature of the year Under The Skin, which we’ll get to soon, but there is an intelligence in its story and enough commitment to the execution to make the trip worth the time and effort.