Filmmaker Luc Besson has never balked at peppering his projects with bold, brassy female leads – from “The Professional” to “The Messenger” to “La Femme Nikita,” the French action auteur has long been dedicated to showing just how much ladies can kick butt, too, but his latest outing takes those aims in some exceedingly unexpected directions.
The heroine of his “Lucy” is, well, the eponymous Lucy, of course, but don’t be fooled by the feature’s simple, single-worded title. Energetically and engagingly played by Scarlett Johansson, Lucy is another Besson beauty who gets tangled up in something bigger than herself, and then has to rise to the challenge. For Lucy, rising to that challenge involves not just going high, but getting high.
Lucy isn’t a stupid girl to begin with– when her skeevy cowboy-hatted paramour Richard (Pilou Asbæk) asks her to trot a suitcase into a swanky Taiwanese hotel, she refuses the request, sensing danger (Besson’s liberal use of intercut montages drive home the case – when Richard begs Lucy to transport the case, a few seconds of a savannah-set animal chase click in) – but even those animal instincts can’t save her, because the briefcase comes complete with a pair of handcuffs and, oh no, Richard has just clicked them on to his pretty prey.
Lucy’s attempt to deliver the case doesn’t go as planned, and before she (and we) know it, she’s caught up on the dangerous grip of the nefarious Mr. Jang (Min-Sik Choi) and his ill-outfitted baddies, who knock Lucy out and shove a bag full of drugs into her belly.
Congratulations, Lucy, you’re now a drug mule.
Once that bag breaks, however, Lucy is suddenly a drug user, and man, do these drugs do something to their consumers. Fast-acting even in small doses, the large amount that Lucy suddenly soaks up transforms her – entirely and quickly – into something very special and very doomed.
Besson’s feature is founded on the misinformed idea that we – humans in general – only use ten percent of our brain, and then questions what would happen if that usage number doubled, or tripled, or just kept ticking up to one hundred. Lucy – likely so named by Besson because that’s the moniker given to the skeleton of Lucy, an early hominid treasured by the archeology community and mentioned even seen throughout the film – is meant to represent that same kind of evolutionary leap, and the drug gets her there…and beyond.
It’s not an easy ride, though.
The rocky blue stuff – oddly, Lucy refers to it as a powder throughout the film, although the material more closely resembles Pop Rocks rather than Fun Dip – may indeed look “gross,” but it’s soon revealed to be vaguely natural, meant to facilitate growth, though certainly not like this. As Lucy’s brainpower increases (it ticks ever upward, thanks to intercut flashes that reveal what level she’s at, 20% and 60% just flying right on by), the threats to her life also ratchet up, thanks to both whatever is going on in her body and her mind and whatever the heck the evil Jang is planning on subjecting her to (she did steal his drugs, after all).
The line between what Lucy is experiencing and what that looks like to the outside world is swiftly blurred, and Besson never quite clarifies what’s real and what’s all in her big old brain, employing plenty of visual tricks, a few of which impress, most of which boggle and look oddly low-budget.
As Lucy’s mind grows, the film weaves in a lecture from apparent brain expert (is that a job title these days?), Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman), obviously and surprisingly seamlessly letting us into the inevitably collision between him and Lucy. Smart enough to devour all of Norman’s works on the human brain, but unable to synthetize their meaning, Lucy soon reaches out to the prof. Can he help? God, no, nothing can help, and the sooner Lucy learns that, the better.
As Lucy’s brainpower increases, her ability to feel emotions and to act with anything resembling social graces and basic manners fade. Lucy knows it, too, and although it’s mentioned, Besson never develops this compelling side effect in a satisfying manner. Lucy is more human than human, but Besson is not equipped to explore what that means, and the wacky “Lucy” is more bent on tossing in weak “Matrix”-styled fight sequences and car chases that don’t actually involve any kind of chasing to build out the emotional consequences of what has happened to dear sweet Lucy.
Fortunately, Johansson is just right for the role, funny and strange and freaked out in equal measures, and her ability to plump up the role with her own emotions and apparent gameness for anything and everything elevates the mostly junky (and surely bound for cult adoration) film beyond its other parts. The film is pushed along by a dizzy, silly, weird, and wired energy, but even that can’t make up for the giant plot holes and lingering questions that bog it down once anyone stops to think about anything that’s happening on the screen for more than a second.
Even Besson’s most bold choices – and this is a film that goes weird, and then just keeps getting weirder – don’t seem so revolutionary when packaged in such well-tread trappings and increasingly shoddy writing. None of it is subtle, though most of it is entertaining enough to tick right through a slim ninety-minute runtime.
Will you need to use your brain to consume “Lucy”? Not really, not even ten percent of it.