Luc Besson’s “Lucy” is a startling and thought-provoking exercise in What-If science fiction, masquerading as a summer action blockbuster. Despite some maddening flaws, it presents a powerful and compelling vision of what evolution, enlightenment, and eventual human ascension might look like.
The story revolves around Lucy, a ditzy 20-something blond party girl living the high life in Taipei, played by Scarlett Johansson. She becomes an accidental drug mule for some really scary bad guys who load up her abdomen with a new, super-duper synthetic party drug she must transport out of the country. Thanks to more really scary post-surgery bad guys, the drug starts leaking into Lucy’s gut, launching a chain of biochemical events that gradually turn on Lucy’s brain capacity to the 100% mark over the course of the film. Morgan Freeman plays the eminent brain researcher/Greek Chorus who helps Lucy, explains all the high-tech stuff to the rest of us, and dodges bullets when Lucy supernaturally conquers the bad guys who come to get their drug back. News Flash: The bad guys can’t touch her. At all.
The film has several strong points. Besson is a great proficient in high visual style as seen in his earlier films “The 5th Element” and “la Femme Nikita”. The look of the film is beautiful, and it’s all very well paced. Besson and his writers knew enough to not let either the action scenes or the more serious stuff fall into cliché. Animation wonderfully evokes, among other things, the life processes in our cells, passing through black holes, and also allows us to meet the original 3.2 million year old “Lucy”, the first near-modern primate ever discovered in the fossil record.
Viewers are naturally much more interested in the modern Lucy, and the film does not disappoint on that score. Scarlett Johansson does a superb job of being lofty, otherworldly, poignant, and a bombshell in a little black Chanel dress and 6-inch Christian Louboutin heels. The French filmmakers thought, somehow, that if you’re going to evolve and ascend, you should dress well enough to get through the metaphysical door. In the hands of a lesser actress, this would come off as either really campy or patronizing. Gifted actress that she is, Johansson brings a solemn nobility and innocent fascination to her character that is impossible to laugh at. She manages to maintain her dignity while fighting bad guys with really big guns, and driving insanely against one-way traffic in Paris, all the while obviously preoccupied with much larger, more interesting things than what those silly people are doing around her. Morgan Freeman is an excellent foil, bringing warmth and credibility to a part that amounts to reading a neurology textbook out loud. He carries it all off with complete artistic conviction.
This reviewer is most grateful that, despite the summer action movie packaging, the “message” is surprisingly high-toned. The small details and moments in the film show this to best advantage. As her plane lands in Paris, Lucy raises a glass of very good champagne to thin air and toasts,”To Knowledge!” It’s a small but telling moment. This is how Lucy will proceed with her evolution. The old adage remains true for many people that ultimate power corrupts absolutely. Just not here, and not with Lucy. She’s going to arrive at enlightenment in the best way possible. Many plot points in the movie support this upward path.
A few things tend to water down the message, however. First, the film is way too short at 1 hour 28 minutes. The most interesting points of the philosophical discussion get glossed over, or left hanging. For example, in the middle of the death-dealing demolition derby car chase in Paris, Lucy turns to her anxious policeman sidekick and reassures him with “We never really die”, while avoiding a lethal crash is if by mere chance. Now, it would have been quite interesting if Lucy could have discussed the after-life a bit more, since it seems like she actually knows something about it. Besson must have decided most unfortunately that the car chase had to come first. Interesting and even mind-blowing points are maddeningly rushed over in this way.
Also, much of the 1st act exposition is handled like a comic or graphic novel, and so the 1st act plot is overly compressed. Thus, much of the character development ends up a little shallow. It would have helped, for one thing, to see Lucy as she had been in a bit more detail before undergoing her drug-induced brain explosion. As it is, it’s hard to tell if she changes much, or not at all. 10 or 20 more screen minutes would have solved both these problems easily and not burdened the film at all.
But having said that, the film succeeds in posing a lot of mind-blowing questions in a visceral and arresting way. Is this what enlightenment really is? Is this where evolution is actually taking us? All those big questions and high-toned ethics, plus a bunch of guns and a little black dress, tied up in a summer action flick. Who knew?
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