In a year in which many films have been quite out there, Luc Besson’s Lucy is a contender for the most out there of them all. That’s not to say it’s the best or most creative or most thought-provoking film of 2014… hell, it’s not working with that original of a concept, being beaten to the “magic drug = 100% brain capacity” punch by 2011’s Limitless. But for sheer levels of “WTF is going on?”, it’s a film which easily beats out its thematic cousin Trascendence, and most other consciously weird cinema released recently.
First things first, Scarlett Johansson does extremely well throughout. If Marvel’s reluctance to greenlight a Black Widow movie is the uncertainty of a woman headlining an action movie and the subsequent box-office success of said female-led film, then Lucy seems purpose built to prove them wrong; a high-concept action film starring their premier female star which has made $217m worldwide in just a month of release.
Johnasson absolutely convinces as the Lucy we’re initially introduced to; a previously carefree, hedonistic American student in Taiwan, tricked into a shady drug deal by her asshole boyfriend of just a week. Abducted by a mob of Korean gangsters (led by Choi Min-Sik’s menacing Mr Jang), Lucy has a bag of synthetic CPH4 sewn into her intestine in order to transport it to Europe. Alas she doesn’t quite make it and, for reasons which are never quite explained, winds up in a makeshift cell in the back of a deli, where one of her captors helpfully boots her in the stomach, tearing the bag and releasing the drug into Lucy’s system. Thanks, nameless mook, whoever you are!
With the drug opening up previously unknown cranial capacity, Lucy takes the first step on the road to accessing the entirety of her brain’s potential function, and also becoming a slightly robotic, detached presence, as she transcends simple human worries. In this, Lucy forms a nice quasi-trilogy with two of Johansson’s other films released this year - specifically Under The Skin and Her - in which she plays slightly detached enigmatic uber-humanoid-type characters. Unfortunately this also means there’s literally zero tension at all. Even at 20% cranial capacity - let alone 70% and over - Lucy is already the most evolved and powerful human on the planet, and genuinely unstoppable by any of the mere mortals who oppose her. Such invincibility in protagonists is always so dreadfully boring, from Superman to John Cena. And those guys have opponents of equal or greater power to face, Lucy has no such thing. A far more interesting plot would have involved one of the other drug mules suffering similar side-effects, but using their newfound powers for evil, setting up a clear and worthy antagonist.
It’s at this point, when Lucy is already a superhuman ubermensch and virtually invincible, that the film falls apart. The “10% of your brain” stuff has been acknowledged by Besson as bollocks, but even so, there’s no real internal logic behind the bollocks. Being able to use your brain to its full capacity probably won’t allow you to float and time-travel (as Lucy appears to do at the flim’s climax) and bend matter. Not only are there plenty of these logic holes, there’s a whole pile of unfortunate implications throughout the film. When roughly the first half of the movie is dedicated to your white anti-hero throwing their weight around a foreign country, and assaulting and killing people of colour, you’ve probably got some issues you might wanna examine. At least Ryan Gosling had the good grace to get his ass kicked consistently by the native population throughout Only God Forgives.
It really doesn’t help the cause when our protagonist is the most powerful and highly evolved being on the planet, but also looks like an Aryan poster-girl. The now infamous scene showcased in the trailer in which Lucy shoots a Taiwanese taxi driver for the apparently heinous crime of not speaking English is a modicum less racist than what it seemed initially - it appeared as if it was a brutal murder when in fact it’s a slightly less life-threatening shot to the leg - but it still makes very little sense at all. Said taxi driver understands Lucy’s question well enough to indicate he doesn’t speak English, so it’s not too much of a stretch that he’d understand her need to get to a hospital. And then roughly twenty seconds after this, we’re show that Lucy’s brain can instantly visually translate Chinese into English… so again it’s not much of a stretch to think that, thanks to her new super-brain, she could probably speak Chinese too. Hell, we know she’s a student who’s been living in Taiwan for a certain amount of time, surely she’s picked up some basic phrases by now…
Further damning is the Chinese writing on the walls of Lucy’s cell early on in the movie which simply says “Keep Clean. Apple, scallop & ginger, orange, tomato, grape” …I get that all those squiggly symbols are probably intended to look “exotic” and “intimidating” to the film’s western audience, but jeez, would it have been hard to either hire someone to write something which made sense in context or even just not have it at all?
Even if you’re reluctant to brand Besson as a misguided or inadvertent racist, or just willing to overlook such glaring problems, you still have to admit it’s poor filmmaking and storytelling to keep these things in a film, which surely has to go through a lot of analysis and vetting before it reaches cinemas. You get the feeling Besson watched 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Tree Of Life a few times and tried to egregiously weld the ideas and visuals of those two classics onto his rather standard action film without anything to really warrant highfalutin aspects. Might I suggest that for his next film Besson attempt using more than 10% of his brain?