3 / 5 stars
If it’s true that we use only 10% of our brains, what if Luc Besson tried using more than 10% of his? We’d get something more intellectually challenging than his The Fifth Element or La Femme Nikita, but with the DNA of those earlier Besson favorites. We’d probably get Lucy, a kitchen-sink thriller that comes up short for the core sci-fi crowd while generally satisfying action-thriller fans (that latter group, by the way, has been a gold mine for Besson as the producer of potentially six Transporter movies). Within this story of an unwitting drug mule whose brain gets super-juiced, Besson wants to ponder human existence, dabble in philosophy, reference his own action films, channel The Matrix and, when in doubt, make a yakuza movie. This is genre overload.
Lucy is fun and surprisingly playful, but it’s tough to take seriously. There’s nothing wrong with Besson’s firm hand as a director – the fight choreography and special effects are careful and well-orchestrated – but the shiny polish overrides the “thinking” elements of the film. A simple case in point: As the eponymous heroine (played with appropriate discomfort by Scarlett Johansson) gains more access to her expanding brain, Besson plasters a “60%” or “70%” graphic full screen, like an old-fashioned title card. He may as well have added an exclamation point. Consider the change in tone if that information were quietly updated in the lower screen, over the action.
At least Besson’s heavy-handedness is consistent, the director inter-cutting footage of jungle predators (I’m not kidding) with some really rough bad guys homing in on a helpless Lucy early in the film. I came looking for a sci-fi thriller and a National Geographic special broke out…
For all the intended big ideas in Lucy, the story, to Besson’s credit, is simple. Lucy, an American student in Hong Kong, is held captive by a relentless narcotics ring that has a drug which can expand cerebral capacity. She ingests a bunch of it and becomes an unstoppable telekinetic ass-kicking machine, aware that she becomes a sacrifice to science as her brain power expands exponentially. (Besson’s attraction to sacrificial women continues. Remember, he did a Joan of Arc film with his then-wife as the lead.)
Lucy’s also aware – and here’s where some of Besson’s thoughts get interesting – that she’s losing the ability to empathize and feel emotion. Could certain aspects of humanity be useless for a superhuman?
The idea never really goes anywhere, but it’s worth seeing Johansson play yet another alien mind inside a human body (see: Under the Skin), speaking with a flat, rapid-fire rhythm and moving her head like a hyper-alert animal. She’s supported by Morgan Freeman, the reference manual for the movie, his professor character existing only to overload the film with tons of brain exposition. On the baddie side is a Korean boss played by Choi Min-sik; fans of Oldboy and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance will love seeing him as a grunting, one-dimensional drug lord.
The chance that you’ll see Lucy as more than an average thriller depends on how open-minded you are about our mental and psychic capacity. Can you imagine scouring through someone’s memories – oh, and change visual angles – just by placing your thumbs on their forehead? Sensing a person’s physical ills by hugging them? How about spinning through the annals of time like flipping pages in a book? Sure, this can all work depending on Besson’s execution, which ranges from sophisticated to sophomoric. But if you’re thinking the whole shebang is silly, even an exceedingly smart Scarlett Johansson won’t change your mind.
DVD / Blu-ray Extras: Looks like Besson and company figured we’d call their bluff on the science of Lucy. Both the DVD and Blu-ray include the short “Cerebral Capacity: The True Science of Lucy,” in which it’s explained that some experts feel the 10% theory is a complete myth, while others believe it may be an overestimate. The Blu-ray also includes a making-of, “The Evolution of Lucy.”
(Chinese poster courtesy raymondyeung.com)