Review: Scarlett Johansson is thrilling in the silly science-fiction kick ‘Lucy’

07.23.14 3 years ago 15 Comments

Universal Pictures

When I spoke to Luc Besson at Wonder-Con this year, we had a fair amount of time aside from the panel I moderated and the interview we did. At that point, we discussed the entire premise of his new film, “Lucy,” and how it's based on a myth.

If you've seen the trailer for the movie, you've seen Morgan Freeman as Professor Norman lecturing to a room full of people. “Imagine if we could access 100% [of our brains]. Interesting things begin to happen.” Great line. Totally wrong. Evolution has actually increased the size of our brains because we use them so much, and so efficiently. We use way more than 10% of our actual brain capacity, and we use our brains in ways that science barely understands. So we are starting from a preposterous place with “Lucy,” and if that's going to drive you crazy, then I would skip it completely. The film starts there and gets way sillier.

To be honest, though, I am in the tank for the way Besson tells stories. I have felt passionate about his work since the first time I saw “Subway,” which doesn't really work as a whole film, but which is told with panache and power. “The Big Blue” and “La Femme Nikita” won me over completely, and from that point on, I've found myself really enjoying his work, infrequent as it is. When he said he was done directing action movies, that struck me as a real loss. I feel just as sad that he hasn't done a big-scale science-fiction movie since “The Fifth Element.” He's got such a particular sense of humor and a keen visual eye that I think of as singular. When I'm looking at something he directed, he's got a knack for detail that wouldn't occur to anyone else. He's got a signature, one of the things that I love most about filmmakers, and I've missed it.

No one is going to accuse “Lucy” of being subtle. The film starts with a shot of Lucy, but the Australopithecus version, sitting in a river, before jumping forward about 3.2 million years to modern-day Tapei, where another Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) is with her boyfriend Richard (Pilou Asbaek), a douchebag in a cowboy hat who has some shady job to do. He wants Lucy to do it for him, and as he tries to talk her into it, Besson drops in shots of a rat sniffing at the cheese in a trap or a deer by a watering hold with hungry predators watching nearby, inching into position. Not subtle at all, but funny, and sure enough, poor Lucy steps in it and ends up, after some shocking violence, sitting upstairs in a hotel room, face to face with Mr. Jang (Choi Min-sik), a key player in a drug trafficking scheme involving a brand new synthetic hormone that they're planning to sell as a party drug.

“Lucy” is the second film this year I've seen about what happens when a drug mule experience goes badly, but it's a whole different kind of experience than the excellent “The Mule” was. Here, when Lucy is violently attacked while carrying a package of this synthetic hormone sewed into her stomach, the bag ruptures, and it sets off an evolutionary jump in her. Suddenly, she begins to access all those unused corners of her brain, and the more she can access, the more control she has over not just her own body but the world around her. It is preposterous, deeply impossible, and yet Besson is so in love with the concept and so set on pushing it as far as he can that it's hard to get too worked up about how fundamentally stupid the premise is.

More than anything, there is a confidence to the lunacy here that is thrilling to watch. When Besson shoots a car chase or a gun fight or a fight sequence, his action chops are so strong that he makes it look second-nature. Likewise, Johansson at this point has become a very precise physical performer, and every beat of her Lucy performance feels like she's thought long and hard about what each of those percentages would look like and how it would change her relationship to the physical world around her. I really like the work she's been doing the last few years, and I think watching this, I figured out part of what I'm responding to. She hands herself over to a filmmaker when she collaborates, and she seems like she'll trying anything as long as she trusts the vision that she's serving. Whether it's something as esoteric as “Under The Skin” or as broad as “Don Jon” or as action-oriented as “The Avengers” or as just-plain-crazy as this film, she's game. And she is incredibly particular about the details that are part of playing these parts. She's as good at playing shock in the first twenty minutes of this film as Tom Hanks was in the ending of “Captain Phillips.” Sure, it's a fairly different context, but watch how shaken Johansson is and then check out the change once the drug has taken hold of her. As she shakes off her humanity, bit by bit, she gets more and more robotic, but she plays it like a robot who is catching a buzz from all the data she's processing.

This is the movie that “Transcendence” should have been, the Singularity as an action movie, and one of the biggest problems is that just as it reaches a place where the story feels like it's about to kick in, the film ends. It feels like there's an entire act missing. There's really no defending the underlying science of “Lucy” on any level, but it serves as a reminder of just how good Besson is at this sort of thing. There are moments of real wonder and even beauty amidst the slam and the bang and the big bada boom, and while “Lucy” is a mixed bag, it's been mixed by a master, and it is delightfully, happily insane.

“Lucy” opens in theaters everywhere on Friday.

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