The big name in all the ads for Lucy is Scarlett Johansson, and for good reason. Lucy just clobbered Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson’s brawnier, twice-as-expensive release Hercules in theaters this weekend. I think its safe to put to rest the notion that women can’t launch action movies, and make those Black Widow and Wonder Woman spin-offs immediately.
Johansson’s isn’t the only name in Lucy you should recognize, though. Chances are you’ve seen a few of director Luc Besson’s films, from La Femme Nikita to Leon: The Professional. He’s best known for 1997’s The Fifth Element, which paired an intergalactic, cab-driving Bruce Willis with kung fu mastering, space demigod Milla Jovovich. Needless to say, it was brimming with weird. That oddness is a big reason why Fifth Element survives, however. Separate from the pack of hundreds of nearly identical 90s sci-fi movies, it doesn’t feel bound to any time or place in particular, and its cartoonish aspects are as fresh today as they were 17 years ago.
Besson brings a lot of that weirdness and cartoon sensibility to Lucy, which opens up with Johansson’s title character deciding whether or not to trust Richard, her boyfriend of a week who’s doing his best to convince her to deliver a mysterious briefcase to a gangster. When she briefly considers, Besson cuts to a mouse honing in on a baited mousetrap. When Lucy refuses, Richard forces her anyway. And when the deal goes awry and gangsters close in, Besson cuts from the tattooed henchmen to cheetahs closing in on their kill. This tongue-in-cheek sensibility eases up across the movie, but it never fully goes away – it’s an enjoyably Looney Tunes way to present an action film.
Lucy is kidnapped by the gang and forced into becoming a drug mule, a baggie of a brand new superdrug surgically implanted into her “lower tummy.” It breaks, overdosing Lucy on a drug which allows her to use increasing chunks of her mental capacity, instead of the usual 10% to which humans are limited.
This eventually means she can translate any language, read 6,000 pages in a matter of minutes, change her hair color at will, and pluck phone conversations from the air with her mind. The scientific explanations, given by Morgan Freeman’s Professor Norman, are a lot of hokum, but the broad idea behind it all has some basis in theoretical possibility.
More and more science regarding the human mind is turning to the notion that our brains work at a quantum mechanical level, surpassing many of the rules of classical physics. What this means is that every consciousness is more than just information that can be downloaded, and that every individual’s consciousness has its own unique relationship to perceiving and affecting the world around us. As Freeman’s pointed out in his TV documentary show Through the Wormhole, quantum consciousness is the strongest scientific argument yet for the existence of the individual soul. Lucy plays as a very broad extension of these theoretical ideas.
Needless to say, by the time Lucy’s tracked down Prof. Norman, so have the gangsters. How do you have an action movie when, halfway through the film, the hero can put crowds of people to sleep and send gunmen flying through walls at the speed of thought? This is where most action movies would introduce some sort of superpowered nemesis to measure up to the hero. Lucy is more concerned with its character’s journey, however. The most compelling scenes involve Johansson’s moving performance as her perception of the world and life itself evolves into near-omnipotence. It’s an intriguing path, but Besson still feels as if its necessary to tack on gunfights and car chases that just don’t fit.
Lucy is a fun journey, but not necessarily a satisfying one. At least it effectively instates Johansson as a bonafide movie star in an age when there’s no such thing. While Besson’s style counts for a lot, and Johansson and Freeman sell moments lesser actors couldn’t, you’re still stuck with a film that can’t choose whether to be philosophy, comedy, or action, and isn’t complex enough to be all three.
Between her performances in Under the Skin, Chef, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and now Lucy, I feel comfortable in saying that Johansson is the most important actor – male or female – of 2014. And this comes from a critic who’d all but dismissed her 8 years ago. Lucy is rated R for violence and sexuality.