LUCY Review: Free Your Mind and a Mess Will Follow
Over the last six months, Hollywood has offered a wide variety of entries (some good, some not, and some somewhere in between depending on who you ask), ranging from non-franchise material like Transcendence and Edge of Tomorrow; franchise reboots and sequels like Godzilla and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes; and Young Adult adaptations like Divergent. The latter half of the year holds promise, too, with late-year releases including YA adaptation/franchise The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, starring Jennifer Lawrence; and non-franchise Interstellar, the latest vision from director Christopher Nolan.
One other 2014 sci-fi entry – art house dazzler Under the Skin – stars Force Two of 2014: Scarlett Johansson. The talented actress, already coming off a great 2013 (having starred in indie darling Don Jon and the Oscar-winning Her), has had one of the best years in the business. In addition to her brilliant performance in Under the Skin, she appears in indie fave Chef and plays a key role (as her MCU recurring character, Black Widow) in the new best entry in the MCU, Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
Can ScarJo and sci-fi do it again and keep both 2014 streaks alive with Lucy?
The title character, as played by Johansson, is a woman in Taiwan whose new boyfriend tricks her into delivering a locked briefcase to mob boss Jang (Min-sik Choi). In the case are large packs of a new synthetic drug set for global distribution. The packs will be surgically inserted into Lucy (and other nameless mules) and later extracted when everyone arrives at their various international destinations. On her trip, Lucy’s pack breaks and her body absorbs a large quantity of the drug, opening her mind well beyond the standardly-accepted 10% of mental power that humans supposedly utilize. Gradually, Lucy’s awareness of self expands to awareness of environs around her and, ultimately, awareness of all (universally speaking).
Lucy’s self-appointed mission is to find Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman), a leading authority in the field of human mental capacity, so that she can share with him the knowledge she is gaining as her brain power grows. She also wants to stop the other mules from reaching their destinations, and for assistance with that she recruits French police detective Pierre Del Rio (Amr Waked). Looking to recover his drugs is Jang.
Writer/director Luc Besson puts himself to a considerable test with Lucy by attempting to integrate a high concept and a deep theme within the framework of a by-the-numbers action flick, all within a 90-minute runtime. Besson, although he tries, is never up to his own task. What shows up on screen is a scattered mess of a film, although not without some positives.
Besson stumbles out of the gate in two ways, really. First, he juxtaposes two specific events in an overt effort to draw a comparison between man and nature. As Lucy finds herself in deeper and deeper trouble at Jang’s office, Besson cuts to a gazelle in its habitat, unknowingly being stalked by a cheetah. As Jang’s men close in, (cut) the cheetah gives chase to the gazelle, eventually slaying the beautiful creature (cut) just as Jang’s men detain Lucy. I understand the intent, and the footage of the animals is nice (although not anything better than you might watch on a NatGeo program), but it disrupts the action in the human world and dismantles any tension therein. This connection to nature is made repeatedly throughout the film, and then ultimately extended to the universe and along the timeline of the universe’s history.
Second, Besson spends a considerable amount of time early in the film on Freeman giving a lecture on the human brain and its capacity. It’s interesting enough, but this particular filmmaking choice is emblematic of what hurts the entire film the most: the depth of the theme is too great to be smoothly integrated into an action movie. This film is sold (via trailers) as High Concept + Action. It isn’t that; at least, it isn’t only that, and the parts that aren’t that are far too deep for what the rest of the film is trying to do.
Or, you know, vice versa. So much time is spent on the mind’s possibilities once its power is expanded beyond 10% (Lucy’s incremental increase is shown as effectively shocking, gigantic title cards … 40% … 50% … 60% … and so on), the action that takes place disrupts any type of “educational” flow. But, since we were sold on ScarJo being drugged and kicking ass, this film must be viewed as a high-concept action movie first, but one with an overreaching cerebral component. I know I’m in line with the chorus when I say I want movies – even summer popcorn fare – to be smarter, but this thing tries too hard to be the über-nerd at the cool kids’ table.
This lack of focus takes a considerable toll on the action in the film, which is pedestrian at best. As stated before, the early scenes are interrupted, and once Lucy can drop a room full of men with just a thought, there isn’t much else to film. And even when there is – like the Lucy-less gunfight that occurs between Jang’s men and Del Rio’s squad – the sequence is lifeless. It’s as if Besson knew he needed the scene and simply got it done so he could check that box. There is also a car chase in the film, and it too is the victim of both uninspired check-box direction and woefully clunky editing, also by Besson.
The special effects Besson and his team employ are quite good, though. Not only are there some mind-bending moments involving Johansson, there are grand effects including time-travel (yes, time-travel) and visions of the universe; personal effects involving the things a heightened Lucy can see and hear (that regular people can’t); and effects at the molecular level within Lucy’s body and mind. These are all quite dazzling, and the effects that occur in concert with characters are seamless and believable.
The actors playing the four primary characters are a mixed bag. Freeman is fine, but he basically plays the Freeman character – erudite and wise, but still reverent of things greater than he. Choi is so disappointingly underused. I’ve seen his work in Asian films (most notably 2003’s Oldboy,2005’s Lady Vengeance, and 2010’s I Saw the Devil) and the guy can deliver. Sadly, his Asian baddie character here is presented through Hollywood’s white filter, and he never dreams of making it past two dimensions. Surprisingly, Waked is quite good as the French police detective, despite being anther flat character in a limited supporting role. He has a natural charisma, and while I don’t think he could carry an American action film, he’d be a welcome addition to a larger cast.
And then there is Johansson, who is simply amazing. She elevates a film fraught with problems and carries it for most of its 90 minutes, making us believe in something we have no idea about. No one knows what it would be like to have that kind of brain power, and the actress plays it not crazed or megalomaniacal, but with sensitivity and tenderness, and a resolve that the end might not be good for her. Johansson’s shining moment comes as Lucy’s brain capacity is in its early stages of expansion. She calls her mother in the States and relives a collection of childhood memories that reach back to her infancy – things like the feel of a cool hand on her feverish forehead or the taste of her mother’s breast milk. Johansson delivers these memories with a stunning combination of nostalgia and regret, simultaneously happy to remember them but sad that it has taken such an extreme measure to appreciate life’s little things.
I went into Lucy hoping to see a film that would be the third entry in the ScarJo Sci-fi Trilogy, along with Her and Under the Skin. This film is nowhere near as good as those, but Johansson’s performance is. In fact, her performance as Lucy is a perfect blend of the best parts of her portrayals of Her‘s (faceless) Samantha and Under the Skin‘s (mostly silent) nameless entity. Besson may have failed at his ambitious attempt to give us a smarter summer movie, but Johansson saves the day with a sublime performance worth paying to see.