Film review: Luc Besson loses direction in the sci-fi wannabe Lucy

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Scarlett Johansson is spiked with an experimental drug that expands her brain capacity and gives her superpowers in Lucy. Photo credit: Universal Studios Scarlett Johansson is spiked with an experimental drug that expands her brain capacity and gives her superpowers in Lucy. Photo credit: Universal Studios

It may seem nitpicky in this era of movies about radioactive spider bites and ancient alien stud-gods to take issue with a premise that is basically an excuse for inventive set pieces, but there’s something so incredibly lazy and pointless about the way Luc Besson plays with the old (and false) “Did you know that humans use only 10% of their brain?” routine in Lucy. The techno-babble and pop philosophy exchanges between Morgan Freeman and Scarlett Johansson may impress the Ted “Theodore” Logans of America who will “whoa” at how it’s much smarter than the average blockbuster. It’s not smarter. It’s just French, so its bullshit only sounds prettier.

Lucy follows a typical American student (Johansson) who is on a vacation bender in Taipei, when she is taken hostage by a Taiwanese cartel and becomes an unwitting mule for their experimental drug. The bag ruptures inside her, and the drug allows her to access more of her brain and establish a closer connection to space, time, energy, and the mysteries of the universe, not to mention superpowers.

Meanwhile, Morgan Freeman (who ought to know better with his show “Through the Wormhole”) plays Professor Norman, an American researcher visiting Paris whose (incorrect) lectures about “cerebral capacity” are intercut with Lucy’s story and the occasional clip of CG early humans and actual rhino sex. Once Lucy realizes what is happening to her, she reaches out to Professor Norman to seek help, and attempts to reach Paris with both the Taiwanese cartel and French police on her tail as her condition becomes increasingly unstable, and her powers more superhuman.

The problem with Lucy isn’t the plot itself. Other movies have taken more preposterous scientific shortcuts to terrific effect. The issue is that Besson decided to use a plot device that would allow him to do absolutely anything, to really let loose in a flurry of stylish, inspired insanity like we know he can, only to go nowhere in particular. We get neither a heady sci-fi parable nor a ridiculous-but-entertaining adventure. The tension is sucked out of a beautifully shot car chase because Besson is so focused on Lucy’s calmness that the crashes and chaos become background noise. Watching Lucy levitate her opponents instead of fighting them is neither badass nor exciting. It feels like walking through a room with two T.V.s, one playing Neil deGrasse Tyson’s “Cosmos” on your left and The Matrix on your right, but you commit to neither hoping to absorb both. You’ve been robbed of two viewing experiences in one go, either of which would have been satisfying on its own.

Luc Besson works best when he either has one solid concept, or a completely idiotic one that he just doesn’t care is idiotic. Not every critic will say this, but he truly does have something to offer when he plays to his strengths. Subway, his 1986 breakthrough, was so stylish and energetic that it didn’t matter if the characters themselves were paper thin, and the same is true of The Fifth Element. Meanwhile, the characters and motivations were so heartfelt in Léon: The Professional that the action sequences didn’t need to be as well choreographed as they were to be exciting, because their consequences carried real weight. But the bigger and more all-encompassing the idea Besson attempts to tackle, the more confused he seems to be about where to direct the viewer’s attention, as with his Joan of Arc film The Messenger and now Lucy.

With a handful of inspired sequences and a cast that is clearly having fun, Lucy is not bad. It just demands the audience to surrender too much logic for not enough payoff, being neither cerebral enough to be effective sci-fi nor exciting enough to be solid action. It will not destroy your brain, so long as you only use 10% of it going in.

~ Kristofer Jenson

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