Lucy (France, 2014)

July 24, 2014
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Lucy Poster

Expectations for Lucy based on television commercials and theatrical trailers will result in a skewed and inaccurate representation of the film. This is not, as the marketing department of Universal Pictures would have one believe, a kick-ass superhero film. This isn't Scarlett Johansson's response to Marvel's (thus-far) reluctance to give Black Widow a stand-alone film. In fact, in tone and intent, this is closer to Johansson's Under the Skin than it is The Avengers. The action scenes depicted in the Lucy advertisements are in the movie, but the context differs. Luc Besson's production is a sci-fi yarn that ponders the meaning of time and the importance of evolution while occasionally throwing in some shootouts. And, although the titular heroine develops superpowers, the most interesting thing about them is how they expand and where the journey ultimately takes her. And, since she's terminally ill, her mission isn't killing bad guys but finding a way to pass on the massive amounts of knowledge she has acquired to those who will come after her. Lucy is what a superhero movie might look like if developed by Spike Jonze and/or Michael Gondry.

On the surface, Lucy's premise sounds plausible enough even though it's based on a debunked urban legend. The idea goes something like this: human beings typically utilize only about 10% of their cerebral capacity (not true), so what would happen if a person could open up all the unused neural pathways and access 100%? The movie goes on some flights of fancy in following this to its improbable conclusion but, although one might deem Besson's resolution to be preposterous, it's never uninteresting.

Although the movie eventually transforms into something odd, it begins in a traditional Besson-ish fashion, which is to say with fast cuts, violence, and warped humor. Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) is in the wrong place at the wrong time. She is tricked by her soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend into delivering a locked briefcase to a gangster, Mr. Jang (Min-sik Choi), who is not sympathetic to Lucy's predicament. After forcing her to open the briefcase, which contains a new kind of experimental drug, Mr. Jang takes Lucy prisoner, inserts a bag of the drug into her stomach, and forces her to work as his mule. However, rough treatment at the hands of one of Mr. Jang's thugs causes the bag to break and the drug leaks into Lucy's system. There are two consequences to this: her brain capacity begins to increase and she becomes terminally ill. She seeks out brain expert Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman), who spends much of the movie in exposition mode, in an attempt to understand what's happening to her. Meanwhile, Mr. Jang and his men track Lucy with the goal of killing her before she becomes too powerful to take out.

The plot element involving the bad guys in Lucy feels almost irrelevant. Mr. Jang isn't threatening and Besson doesn't take the time to make him into anything more sinister than a cartoon character. Once Lucy has begun to evolve, there's no sense that she's in danger. Lucy is more about her journey - what she's becoming and what its implications are for humanity. Besson doesn't provide all the answers. The ending is saturated with ambiguity. Scarlett Johansson's presence, combined with the way in which the movie concludes, brings a forceful echo of Her. Some viewers left that movie scratching their heads. That will be even truer of Lucy.

Universal has done this movie a disservice by positioning it as a mainstream action/thriller and hinting that Lucy is an X-Men style mutant who will use her powers to do all sorts of crowd-pleasing things. Instead, this is closer to an art house film than a mainstream offering and the hue and cry from those expecting the summer's next big blockbuster will be loud indeed. Sure, there's plenty of action in Lucy but it's not of the rah-rah sort. This is a more contemplative sort of motion picture. The climax in particular, although as visually impressive as it is bizarre (Tree of Life, anyone?), is more likely to frustrate than satisfy. This defiance of expectations, done with bold-faced irreverence, allows Lucy to work on its own terms. There are plenty of plot-related issues, not the least of which is that the film's "science" is wrongheaded in many ways, but it's hard not to be impressed by a movie that pushes forward relentlessly without being predictable. I value films, even flawed ones, that have the capacity to surprise me. Audiences in general will probably react negatively to Lucy, but that's more the fault of the promoters and marketers than it is of the men and women who crafted it. This is a fine, quirky sci-fi offering that will appeal to those who aren't in the theater for the reasons most people will be.

Lucy (France, 2014)

Director: Luc Besson
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Min-sik Choi, Amr Waked
Screenplay: Luc Besson
Cinematography: Thierry Arbogast
Music: Eric Serra
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures
Run Time: 1:30
U.S. Release Date: 2014-07-25
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Violence, Sexual Content)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1