I have always been interested in exploring existential ideas and philosophies, to believe in something that we’re far too primitive to understand as a species and trying to wrap my head around the magnitude of it all. I’ve even gone as far as writing about it in some of my own work, even if I may only be scratching the surface of the knowledge and the abilities that could be available if we understood just one fraction of the code that makes up the universe, including how it relates to God and other higher powers. So when I first saw the trailer for Lucy, you can imagine how excited I was, not only to see what Luc Besson (a writer and director who can be very hit or miss, but whose work I do tend to enjoy) would convey through the idea of being able to tap into the full capacity of our brains, but also to see if Scarlett Johansson could lead an action film on her own merits, without the need of a band of super heroes. Suffice it to say, I was a little underwhelmed by the finished product.
Writing a story like this can be quite overwhelming, causing the auteur to lose focus, and I believe that’s what happened with Lucy. In performing his balancing act between the existentialism of who we are and how we fit into the universe and the action sequences as Lucy (Johansson) fights to live past tomorrow, Besson tended to lean far more toward the action than he did the thoughtful explanation of Lucy’s transformation, and in so doing, lost sight of his heroin’s journey and the truth behind her story — which is what would happen if we, as humans, were able to access one hundred percent of our cerebral capacity (as Morgan Freeman’s Professor Norman explains to us via an onscreen lecture).
I think where Besson dropped the ball most was in how manufactured the story felt. There was a major imbalance in not only Lucy’s growth and discovery, but in the pace of the action sequences and the level of suspense that we are supposed to feel. Besson sets Lucy up as the most powerful being ever to walk among us far too early in her transition (somewhere around 40% cerebral capacity), and because of this, all of the the tension becomes moot, as there’s no longer a reason for most of what happens in the second half to happen. When Lucy puts a dozen people to sleep with just the flick of her finger halfway through the film, there is no longer a reason to believe that she is in any danger whatsoever. She can accomplish anything she needs, making any action sequences thereafter completely arbitrary.
Essentially, Lucy does things in the latter half of the film for no other reason than to keep from being repetitive. Now I know this happens in a lot in films, and there is an essential suspension of disbelief needed for characters who have abilities to not always use the same ones, or eventually use an ability that they should have been using all along. The problem I think Besson faces is in not having an opposition that matches Lucy’s abilities, thus his reasoning for trying new things and performing different abilities in different situations is pointless, unless he slowly builds on the abilities as Lucy gains further brain function.
The first half of the film does this quite well. When we first meet Lucy, she’s an ordinary girl who makes one bad decision and is unwillingly thrust into a situation that she is not ready for. When she makes the mistake of helping a guy she’s been dating for a week do something she’s not comfortable with, Lucy is put into a situation that scares her to her marrow. It leads into a terrific scene when Lucy is ordered to open a briefcase that might contain a bomb sent to kill Mr. Jang (Min-sik Choi), the head of a Chinese crime syndicate. The scene is frightening, funny and holds a high amount of tension, and Johansson conveys all of her emotion perfectly.
After it’s discovered that the briefcase has several bags of a new synthesized drug, Lucy (along with with three other patsies we never get to know) is forced to become a courier for the syndicate in order to get the drugs through customs. Along the way to the airport (and I’m not sure if I missed something here, but for the life of me, it seems like an entire section is missing), Lucy is taken to a room where she is cuffed to a wall and beaten. In the process, the bag is torn and the drugs enter her system. A lot happens following this that seems a bit off, but for which I gave the benefit of the doubt. This is the beginning of her transformation, but this is also where Besson starts to lose me in the inconsistency of Lucy’s behavior throughout the rest of the film.
At times, she is the frightened girl we first met, trying desperately to hold onto a humanity that is slowly slipping away as she begins to understand and dissect what human emotion truly is and where it comes from. At other times, she is a living robot, deliberate and calculated, seemingly without a conscious or a soul, based on the circumstances she’s in and what she needs to accomplish at any given time. But it is so back and forth, that it starts to feel like an out of control roller coaster than a specifically planned acceleration of change. To see Johansson break down as she tries to convey what she’s feeling to her mother while having surgery to remove the drugs is heartbreaking, but moments before and moments after, she is a hardcore badass with hardly any emotion whatsoever — it’s dizzying.
At one point in the film, after convincing a detective, Pierre Del Rio (Amr Waked), to hand the drugs over to her so that she can use them for a higher purpose, she asks him to come with her. After seeing what she is capable of, he tells her he doesn’t think he can help. She then kisses him and tells him she needs him as a reminder of who she used to be and what humanity is. It’s a sweet moment, and an idea that I think Besson was ultimately going for, but couldn’t figure out how to make work correctly. She is fighting to remain human, while becoming much greater than imaginable, I just thought that the process wasn’t as gradual as it should have been.
I also don’t think the main plot device worked very well either, for the same reason. The entire plot revolves around Mr. Jang hunting Lucy down to reacquire his merchandise, while Lucy is trying to use it to deepen her insight and save herself from destruction. However, early on it seemed as if Besson was setting up a plot to have Lucy track down all of the couriers, all the while fighting her fear of evolution and what she will eventually become. This would have made, in my opinion, a far better movie and one that would have allowed for a better intellectual conversation about this subject matter. Instead, Lucy contacts Del Rio, and within a matter of a couple of hours, all three couriers are not only arrested but transferred to France, setting up the meaningless fight for the possession of the drugs.
All of this brings us to the climax of the film, which I thought was executed brilliantly, sans the gunfight between Mr. Jang and Del Rio’s people. It wasn’t necessary because the real story was in the discovery of what opening up the mind could really accomplish, and Besson does a great job of showcasing this idea in the last ten minutes of the film with some really good special effects and ideas that stretch the limits just right. It provides suspense in the simplest of ways without relying on monotonous action sequences. If he had focused more on this, it would have been far more intelligent a film than it actually turned out to be.
Ultimately, Besson has some very good ideas and insights here (including intercutting scenes of animals to portray what the characters are feeling — an interesting idea that is ultimately dropped after the first five minutes), and I respect him for what he was trying to do, but in the end, it felt as if he bit off far more than he could chew.
My Grade: B
Next week, new movies include Guardians of the Galaxy and Get On Up. If you would like to see a review of one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.