By Adam Clark @AdamClarkers
Luc Besson’s Lucy treads the line between ambition and wilful eccentricity with mixed results. The set-up is fairly simple – Scarlett Johansson gets mixed up with a gang in Taiwan, where she becomes the unwilling drug mule for a new superdrug intended for the European party scene. However the drug has the potential to unlock ‘100% of the human cerebral capacity’ and transforms Johansson from naive victim to superhuman killer seeking both revenge and survival.
The premise might sound familiar – the urban myth that we only use 10% of our brain’s capacity has been floating around for a while and was the basis for 2011’s wish-fulfilment Limitless, in which the unlimited potential of the human brain was useful for a loser writer to get sex and money. Lucy is more grandiose in its intentions, as Lucy gains a series of increasingly ludicrous abilities, setting up a series of gravity-defying fight scenes ripped from various Asian martial arts films as she carves her way through an unsuspecting Paris and a series of hapless goons. Choi Min-Sik, star of the Korean thriller Oldboy, lends menace as a demented gang leader, happy to open up anyone’s stomach in search of his merchandise.
So far this traces familiar themes for Besson, a strong female lead and B-film action scenes filtered through slick production and a touch of European sophistication. But his ambitions reach further. Morgan Freeman is drafted in to provide exposition as a neuroscientist speculating on the power of the human brain and Lucy’s potential saviour as she gradually loses her humanity while gaining access to her latent abilities. As Lucy’s brain begins to travel across time we are treated to philoso-babble of a high order, interspersed with jolting nature clips and a brief visit to man’s pre-historic ancestor (the original Lucy, though good luck making a coherent theory of her implied role), clearly intended as homages to Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life and Kubrick´s 2001. While Lucy has none of the intelligence of those films, the visual kaleidoscope is effectively disorientating and Besson never takes the half-baked philosophy seriously enough to slow the pace down.
However with no narrative worthy of the name, Johansson is left bearing the entire emotional weight of the film. Taking Johansson’s Black Widow character and combining it with her recent sci-fi outings in Her and Under the Skin seems perfectly logical and Johansson manages to carry it off with a certain amount of robotic grace, but any sense of a real vulnerability or struggle to retain her vestiges of humanity is swept away by the increasingly ridiculous scale of her powers. Her seemingly callous behaviour towards innocents (an admittedly exhilarating car chase through Paris should have accounted for dozens alone) might have been intended to underscore her increasing separation from humanity but the emotional range of the rest of the film is so narrow that it almost comes off as comical.
Morgan Freeman is woefully misused, providing little more than droning exposition and a pair of concerned eyes. His encounter with Lucy is both contrived and underwhelming, exposing the fragility of the film’s stab at philosophy. Amr Waked’s Parisian cop fares a little better, anchoring the spiralling violence and providing Johansson a chance to shelve the pseudo-intellectual dialogue for a short while and experiment with disconcertingly alien detachment. However by this point the film is rushing headlong to its explosive, dream-like conclusion too quickly to pay attention to anything else.
A visually distinct thriller with a strong female lead, Lucy should be able to satisfy those seeking a thriller a little out of the ordinary, and it’s hard to conclude Besson ever really was aiming for anything other than a slick, pseudo-intellectual thrill ride. Just don’t look too hard for the substance.