Review: Lucy



Scarlett Johansson continues her sci-fi streak in Lucy.

Scarlett Johansson continues her sci-fi streak in Lucy.

I’ve never seen a Luc Besson film I didn’t like, and I mean that in the sense of any film he’s been involved in, whether it be directing, writing, producing or all three. The Fifth Element remains one of my favourite sci-fi films, and the likes of Leon: The Professional and La Femme Nikita are classics that deserve all the prise they have ever gotten. So, it is fair to say that I had reasonably high expectations for his latest.

I saw this film with a couple of friends, one of whom is a very knowledgeable scientist undertaking a PhD in astrophysics. At one point in the film, in the middle a Morgan Freeman monologue where his character is waxing lyrical about the apparent limits of human brain function, the conscious desires of cells and mankind’s propensity for “having” rather than “being” in evolutionary terms, my friend suddenly declared “That is the stupidest sentence I’ve ever heard”.

I think that kind of cuts to the heart of Lucy. The science, even to a layman like me, is indescribably bad, and there are plot holes to spare too. The trick, for a film like this anyway, is whether it can pull enough of everything else together to still make the experience worthwhile.

Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) is a party girl who finds herself caught up, against her will, in a drug smuggling operation working out of Taipei under the direction of the brutal kingpin “Mr Jang” (Choi Min-sik). After inadvertently absorbing a huge quantity of the drug in question – a mysterious blue substance named “CPH4” – Lucy begins to push the limits of human brain capacity, gaining extraordinary powers. With the aid of neurobiologist Samuel Norman (Morgan Freeman) and French narcotics cop Pierre Del Rio (Amr Waked), Lucy attempts to reach the apex of the brains capacity before she runs out of time.

More in-depth discussion, with spoilers, from here on out. For my shorter, non spoiler, review, click here to go to The Write Club.

Lucy has some serious problems, which do detract greatly from the experience of watching it. Personally I’m more bothered by the numerous holes in plot logic, or the seeming lack of direction to most of the proceedings. Why is Lucy doing any of the things that she does? What does she hope to achieve with her new found intellectual capacity? Why do so many characters walk around in public with guns showing without any kind of alarm being raised? What is the actual point of the Del Rio character? Is Lucy giving her named counterpart some kind of evolutionary burst at the ending? Why did Richard get shot in the beginning? Why does Lucy start disintegrating in the airplane?

Lucy faces my “Inception Test” – whether a film with significant plot holes or needlessly confusing elements has other qualities that still make it a good film – and doesn’t come out the other side looking all that good. It is that most annoying of things: a film that gets worse in your mind the more and more you think about it. I’ve said it elsewhere, but it’s worth repeating: for a film that’s all about humanity opening up new parts of the brain it hasn’t used before, it is astonishing how much Lucy expects you to stop using your own while watching it.

The other major problem is the science, and rather than harp on that for longer than I have to, I’ll just get it all down here. The scientific sections of Lucy, whether it is the “only using 10% of our brains” chestnut, the idea that cells have conscious aims, that opening up of brain capacity leading to supernatural powers, that a chemical produced by the female body during pregnancy is like “an atomic bomb” for foetuses or the warping of Darwinian evolution, is truly awful. Besson makes no bones about it, and doesn’t seem to care too much about people who would get hung up on it. But it is a problem. When the science of a science fiction film – especially one like this, set in the present day with a relatively grounded internal universe – is as bad as this, it is inevitably distracting. I feel like an individuals appraisal of Lucy is going to be bound on whether they are willing (or caring enough) to tolerate the bad science and focus on other parts of the production.

Not having an educational background wrapped around science, I try to think of it like a film which includes a great deal of bad history or, arguably, extreme alterations to the historical record. There are films that might make small changes or have a skewed historical perspective that ends up annoying me greatly (The Wind That Shakes The Barley, U-571) and there are films with huge changes and gigantic shifts in historical perspective that I still quite enjoy, usually for other reasons (The Patriot, Kingdom of Heaven). It is the difference between bad history and bad history. Lucy is a test in the difference between bad science, which you can get over, and bad science, that you cannot.

It has other problems in its general design though. Lucy tries to be many things. It wants to be a high concept science fiction epic, like 2001. It wants to be a unique exploration of strange environments and how humans adapt to them, like Inception. It wants to be a drug and gun filled action film, like Leon: The Professional. It tries to be all of these things, at different points, and never satisfactorily accomplishes any of them. It is, I think, most like a superhero film in many respects: there is an origin, a character who becomes extraordinary in an ordinary world, a nemesis and, eventually, a mission to complete. But superhero movies get along by not focusing so much on the faulty science that explains them: Lucy’s problem is that it wants to talk about the nonsense that backs up the premise regularly, actually drawing the audience’s attention to it before zipping away on car chases and gun battles.

Morgan Freeman is available for all of your stunt casting needs.

Morgan Freeman is available for all of your stunt casting needs.

There is a reason Iron Man doesn’t talk too much about hydraulics, or why The Incredible Hulk leaves the more specific details of gamma radiation to the side. Hell, looking closer to home for Besson, in The Fifth Element there was a science fiction premise, universe building and visual complexity, but he never got into specifics about evil-defeating stones or alien divas or how cars fly, he was willing to simply present that universe, in a futuristic sci-fi setting, and trust the audience to be OK with those things, because he knew the kind of story he wanted to tell and was focused on it, the universe was just the background dressing (and what a great background it was).

Lucy wants to draw enough attention to such things that we can’t help but raise an eyebrow and go “Huh?”, and the problem is made worse because the kind of film Lucy is changes every half hour or so, or even scene to scene or shot to shot. It doesn’t just want the premise and the universe to be the background in large parts, it wants the premise and the universe to be the story. That draws attention and thoughtfulness towards things in Lucy that make no sense at all, and damages suspension of disbelief.

Show me a Lucy-like movie where Scarlett Johansson gains powers and goes after the bad guys who tried to screw with her, and that’s one thing. I can go along with that film, and can do it without needing to understand the intricacies of the science within the fiction. But this is a film where she gains powers, finds out about the powers, what they mean, where they came from, where they are taking her and what she can ultimately do with them, and while doing that she might spend a few minutes dealing with some of the Taiwanese hoodlums who got her in this position in the first place. All of that attention is shining a light which Besson would be better off leaving in darkness. By all means, give us some exposition, some brief commentary, on where these new powers came from and what they actually entail. But he can’t do just that, because he wants Lucy to be all things to all people. There has to be an actual lecture about the premise of Lucy within the film itself, even while there are gunfights and car chases. Lucy doesn’t know what it is or what it wants to be, and suffers accordingly.

You look at the opening shots of Lucy, and see the famed Australopithecus that has been granted the same name as the main character, a moment that prompted myself and others in my group to give a hearty, exaggerated “Ohhhhhhh, Luuuucy!” The image of the ape-like creature at the start of a sci-fi film immediately makes you think of 2001, but almost straight away Besson is taking things in a different direction. But this opening image is one half of a bookend.

The initial set-up is a world away. There is some decent and some clumsy characterisation here: Lucy herself basically reels off her character bio in a few sentences just to confirm who she is and what kind of person she is, while Borgen’s Pilou Asbæk prances around in a foolish looking cowboy hat. The air of mystery to this interaction comes from the contents of the case Richard has to deliver and how much he knows about it, but he’s killed off long before we get to find out.

Those moments, as Lucy slips closer towards the black hole and gets dragged away to an uncertain fate, are again, a case of half and half. These are Johansson’s best acting moments in the film and there is a great sense of rising tension and panic, but Besson also decides to opt for the bizarre, intercutting the sequence with stock footage of animals hunting and getting preyed upon in Africa, as if the audience wasn’t, in his mind, quite capable of understanding the atmosphere he was trying to create.

This leads to Mr Jang, Lucy’s antagonist, who is little more than a particularly brutal and nonchalant kingpin of Taiwan, whose characterisation is clipped and, ultimately, shallow. The second we see him, washing blood off his hands from a recent murder, we essentially know the most vital thing that Besson wants us to know about him: that he is a dangerous killer, and not just in the “sending people to kill people sense”. But this scene between him and Lucy is still a good one, but almost entirely due, again, to Johansson’s performance, as the party girl breaks down into a blubbering mess who has no idea what she has gotten herself into. The translator on the phone, the drug addict’s strange reaction to the blue substance, the casual violence, all add up to form a pretty captivating gangland/crime scene.  I suppose it also starts out Lucy’s journey proper, from quivering wreck (dare I say, a “mewling quim”?) begging Mr Jang for her life, to an individual grown beyond the petty concerns of what he represents. And I’m guessing I’m not the only one who thought of Tom Hanks in the final moments of his Captain Phillips.

Anyway, Julian Rhind-Tutt pops up for an extended cameo as Jang’s drug runner or something, and Lucy is sent off to spread the drug around the world, one of the bags stitched into her intestines. It’s strange to think that Lucy could still have gone off in several different directions at this point, some of them not even science fiction. Up to this point, the performances have been good, and so has the direction (mostly) and I was fully onboard with the story that Besson was telling.

Of course, it was the next sequence where things changed, as Lucy inadvertently absorbs a huge amount of the drug in question, starting to gain magical powers almost immediately. It was a good scene, bizarre in the gravity defying nature of it, and every inch the origin moment for a superhero. The little mini-arc see’s her shoot her abusers dead with a casualness that is striking, and from there Johansson’s performance diminishes for the most part, Lucy becoming more of a soulless robot than a sympathetic protagonist. She casually kills and hurts people, for no other reason than she can and certain individuals – even an air stewardess – are in her way.

Johansson's performance starts off great, before levelling out in a disappointing manner.

Johansson’s performance starts off great, before levelling out in a disappointing manner.

This sort of malaise in acting and characterisation carries over into the plot as, first act done, Besson changes things up. Finding a purpose for the Lucy character was clearly hard to do, with the next few minutes alternating between a revenge mission on Jang and his associates – where she bafflingly does not kill him, just everyone else in that hotel suite – and more high brow stuff, like the conversation with her mother on the surgery table, the last chance Johansson had to actually act (and she did it very well, it must be said). Crime movie, revenge movie, sci-fi action movie, high concept sci-fi movie – Lucy moves through the motions of all of these in a very fast manner, as if Besson was still trying to make up his own mind while filming.

Lucy eventually seems to settle on tracking down the rest of the drugs and making contact with a respected neurobiologist, seeking some kind of higher purpose for the brain capacity that she knows will invariably end up killing her. The scene on the airplane, as Lucy disintegrates Dr Manhattan style, was a truly strange moment, the purpose of which I’m not really sure about. Obviously Besson wants to get across that Lucy was running out of time, but it seemed to me as if the idea was taken two far: Lucy literally bursts into blue light and disintegrates before our eyes, only for the next scene to see her strapped to a hospital bed in the airport as if nothing had happened. So, she reassembled herself? Can she do that? Could she always do that, or was it the fresh intake of drugs that did it? How did the attendants find her? Shouldn’t that have caused a major in-flight incident of some kind?

I break for a moment to talk about the other two characters of Lucy. Morgan Freeman’s neurobiologist is introduced in the scene where the science of Lucy is elaborated upon, an hilarious university lecture where his characters insane ideas are trotted out and blindly accepted by a host of dull students. I was struck by the similar framing of this scene and the debate scenes of God’s Not Dead: both featuring a central figure outlining terrible reasoning and understanding of the world, both showing the audience mindlessly accepting this without any kind of real challenge.

It doesn’t really matter that much I suppose, because Norman isn’t a proper character, he’s just an outlet for Lucy’s quest, a way for her to find some kind of direction. We know very little about him really, just his vague and sketchy scientific motivations and beliefs. Lucy uses him, like she uses everyone, and I suspect that Freeman was a bit of stunt casting, given the general shoddiness of the part.

The other character of note is Del Rio, the French narcotic agent who ends up following Lucy around in the last half of the film. He has similar problems to Norman, insofar as we don’t really know much about him. Lucy keeps him around, according to her, “for memory”, though for what kind of memory we don’t rightly know, a brief kiss the only hint she gives. Del Rio reminds her of her old life or something? Who knows?

Del Rio is just a passenger in Lucy’s adventure – a suppose that is a gender reverse that we don’t see enough of, but it’s still bad characterisation, regardless of sex – illustrated vividly when he becomes a literal passenger during the films car chase, one of its better action moments. Del Rio even explicitly acknowledges his uselessness, and is just a spectator for some of the titular character’s more interesting moments, like when she manipulates radio signals in his car. I suspect he being a named character and a hanger-on for Lucy was a simple means to make the audience a little bit more invested in the over the top shoot out of the finale, seeing as how there was a recognisable protagonist – and a protagonist far more sympathetic than Lucy in a way – in danger.

That finale switches back and forth between action movie and high brow, as Del Rio fights Jang and Lucy goes on a journey through time and space. The action – from the car chase, to the showdown in the hospital, to the final bullet drenched fight in the university/museum/whatever that place was – is actually framed fairly well, but Besson has never had a problem with action. Lots of nice cuts, squib usage and suitably insane moments, not least the appearance of a rocket launcher. But, I was actually most impressed with the “action” that didn’t involve any action at all really, as Lucy takes care of Jang’s thugs in the hospital, a fairly decent sequence that sort of made the most of the central premise, even if it all had more than a slight whiff of The Matrix to it.

The actual finale – the part where Lucy goes on her journey – is all kinds of weird, and not in the good way. More like weird for the sake of being weird, full of, as they say, “Wtf moments”. We get some Akira-style body morphing, some time travel clichés (featuring dinosaurs!) and then the real kicker: Lucy gifting her primeval counterpart a finger touch, taking straight from The Creation of Adam, in a visual metaphor that was so blunt and forceful, Besson could have saved himself some trouble by just swinging a hammer in the direction of the camera. I found this ending incredibly unsatisfying – we never really find out what kind of wonders Lucy knows or leaves behind, or if the meeting with the other Lucy had some deeper significance: is Lucy (human) giving Lucy (hominid) some kind of gift of intelligence, creating (or reaffirming) some kind of closed loop in history? I suppose on another day and in another film that was more focused I might be willing to go along with this, but in the case of Lucy I just felt confused and underwhelmed. We just have time to see Lucy leave a monolith-like USB stick in the hands of Norman – the other bookend shout out to 2001 –  a final monologue and then credits. Lucy closes inexplicably, more concerned with stylistic references to superior movies than anything of real substance.

We have to talk about female characters though. It’s still good, despite my larger feelings about the film, to see a film of this nature, in this genre, headlined by a woman. Johansson’s performance is mixed and far from her best, but she really is one of those, along with the likes of Jennifer Lawrence,  leading the way for female actors in science fiction. Even just this year alone, she can talk about Under The Skin and Her in terms of leading roles, and a great supporting one in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Her Lucy is the only one who gets proper characterisation in Lucy, and while much of that characterisation goes out the window by the time the second act goes around, Lucy still dominates things throughout the story, with male characters subordinate to her role. There is an element of sexual violence imagery to the opening, which sets the character in a traditional damsel role, hut by the conclusion Lucy is a powerful, unassailable individual, who deals with the violence of others around her with ease, without even needing to get violent herself.

Unfortunately, Mr Jang is a poor antagonist for Lucy.

Unfortunately, Mr Jang is a poor antagonist for Lucy.

The domination that Lucy exerts over the rest of the (nearly entirely male) supporting cast is still a problem, but it would be foolish of me or anyone else to claim as if, in the larger sense of things in Hollywood, this is some kind of unjust thing. Even Besson has been guilty of making films like this (or similar in some ways) in the past that have used the usual formula of a male lead dominating a very small cast, that might include a female love interest or family member (Taken, anyone?). If Lucy can say nothing else about itself, it is still a step in the right direction when it comes to the achingly slow process of gender equality in Hollywood.

Maybe it was the short length, maybe it was the varying styles, maybe it was the bad science, maybe it was the underutilised supporting characters, maybe it was all of things, but Lucy largely fails to land as well as it could have, in plot terms at any rate. Besson seems to have struggled to come up with a point to Lucy until the very final moments, and even that is a very vague and disappointing one.

Theme wise, Lucy has three main things that it wants to discuss. The first is human potential, seen through the main premise regarding the (sigh) suddenly advanced use of Lucy’s brain capacity, a tired metaphor for the possibilities that future evolution might have for the human species.

Lucy begins as a party girl with seemingly little tangible prospects in front of her. She changes radically, becoming the pinnacle of human intellectual promise. She gains powers over the nearby environment, over other people and over the realm of knowledge. The diverse strands of what humanity can potentially come are all seen: there is dominance and violence, in her casual killing and brutality. In particular, she physically assaults airplane attendants who inconvenience her, in a truly unnerving moment. Not feeling pain or fear or much emotion at all will probably do that.

But there is the other side too, the desire to raise up her fellow man and use her temporary gifts to achieve the most long lasting good. Lucy stands at the crossroads of these two paths, and only the prodding and pleading of a few individuals convince her to go one way – along with, maybe, some of that residual memory she doesn’t want to let go of, a testament to her upbringing which she sadly calls back to in one of her last moments of genuine feeling.

So, in Luc Besson’s vision the future of humanity’s capacity for knowledge – the exploration of what the brain will be able to offer us, even if such a path exists only in his own mind and not in grounded science – is a positive one, albeit with serious potential for chaos and destruction. Knowledge and a greater understanding of the universe, of a scale we have never known, is within our grasp in the universe of Lucy, but requires a great degree of sacrifice to get to it.

There is also a theme of strength, or rather a question of what is the best place to gain strength from. Jang has his strength in purely physical terms, through his literal body strength, through the power he wields, through fear and terror, a base but still effective kind of strength, that has put him in the position that he holds and leaves him capable of directing a small private army around the world. Norman gets his strength for a career of accumulated knowledge and commentary, making him the preeminent voice in his field. Del Rio gets his strength from his gun, his authority and the support of his fellow police. Crime, knowledge and state come together in those three.

But they are trumped by Lucy. She begins the film as a weak and unimpressive individual, easily manipulated by her boyfriend and then abused by Jang. But she gains a very unique and unforeseen kind of strength with the blue drug, and then there is no stopping her. She is beyond the control of crime lords, intellectuals and state systems. They are just a hindrance or a mild distraction to her. She’s tapped into a power apparently inside every human brain, and in doing so she liberates herself from the control and preying upon of all of those around her. Lucy gives out an extreme message then, that knowledge is strength and intellectual capacity is power – gaining as much of it as possible, even beyond the possible, is the key to finding a personal sense of sovereignty and control over a higher destiny.

Lastly, there is a just a classic purpose of life theme. Lucy begins the film directionless and without any set purpose to her life. She spends the time after the transformation trying to find something to do with her newfound powers, knowing that she only has a limited time to do something with them. It is a microchasm at the larger destiny of the human race, with an uncertain time frame for which to do something with what we have. Lucy moves from vague revenge to simple self preservation, but ultimately chooses to sacrifice her body and experiences in order to make the most of her powers for the benefit of her entire species: a message of cooperation and beneficial coexistence for the human race, that’s probably a more effective final declaration to take from Lucy than anything of the more direct powers the main character exhibits. Norman doesn’t have an answer when asked about what human life looks like at its fullest potential, but Lucy provides it for him, before bending the very walls of time and space to her will.

Time for conclusions. Besson has been very upfront about the kind of film he wanted to make, which is commendable enough I suppose. It’s fast paced and enjoyable in sections, with some unique sequences that do good service for the art of high concept science fiction. But the general plot, the acting, the script and the logic are all suffering from a distinct lack of care, making Lucy a surprisingly underwhelming experience for me, and the first Besson film I’m having trouble giving an enthusiastic recommendation for, something that genuinely surprises me.

I expected something more distinctly deep and provocative I suppose, and what I got was a 90 minute sci-fi action film with, it is fair to say, some delusions of grandeur. Lucy can certainly still be enjoyed, but it is far from what it could have been.

Could have been better.

Could have been better.

(All images are copyright of Universal Pictures and EuropaCorp. Distribution).

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4 Responses to Review: Lucy

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