Sometimes you get the opinion that certain directors watch far too many films and that they just cannot restrain themselves from emulating what it is that has already excited them on the screen. If one is in the mood for a smattering of John Woo’s “Hard-Boiled” mixed with lesser parts “Altered States”, “Koyaanisqatsi”, “Scanners”, “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “D.O.A”, then “Lucy” might be your particular blend of intellectual hemlock. French director Luc Besson continues his fascination with the empowered woman who is simultaneously emboldened with both superhuman abilities and high powered weaponry; a partnership that might seem either unnecessary or contradictory, but certainly makes for a stylish, if predictable, brand of mayhem.
In Besson’s universe, violence isn’t an eruption, but a kinetic ballet; though in lacking a resonant aesthetic shaking core comparable (even in ambition, if not execution) to Peckinpah’s seminal ballets of bullets and blood in “The Wild Bunch”, it fails to elicit little more than comparisons (especially in this case considering the ethnicity of the lead criminals) to the run of the mill Hong Kong shoot-em-up, violence in a Besson film is not used as a means to an end, but simply as a substitution for more intellectual pursuits; which is odd considering the consistent window dressing of tacked-on grandiosity mated with criminally undeveloped philosophical ambitions.
Scarlett Johansson plays the eponymous character, a relative innocent who conveniently (for the plot, anyway) has a close associations with an extremely shady character, resulting, through rather contrived circumstances, in finding herself forced into the role of a surgically implanted drug mule for a shadowy Korean drug cartel run by the odious Mr. Jang; the kind of conspiratorial invention of the movies which purports to operate in secret while flamboyantly laying waste to whole blocks of urban areas with exaggerated gun battles of which even the most narcoleptic of law enforcement agencies would be bound to take notice. Lucy’s internal baggage is a sealed quantity of a state-of-the-art drug which, for no apparent reason except to get the plot moving, is ruptured when one of Mr. Jang’s henchmen decides to practice Rockette high kicks into Lucy’s abdomen; releasing the narcotic into her bloodstream, triggering transformative psychic and physical abilities that are meant to coincide with a continuous sliding gauge of brain usage, until the mystery of what might occur if a human reached full 100% capacity is revealed. SF films (or in this case, action/SF hybrids) have a peculiarly dispiriting habit of failing to capitalize upon the public’s collective curiosity toward the unknown; the banal limitations of the screenwriter’s imagination more often than not revealing itself to be perfectly at home with the most trite of conceptions as long as they are magnified through the cinematic cosmetics of blaring scores, frenetic editing and pyrotechnic special effects; an empty sensory beating.
Besson’s film is even more problematic in that it suffers from a cerebral example of might well be best described as the Brooks Syndrome; a failed reactive dichotomy in which the audience reacts at odds with what is being presented onscreen; best exampled in Mel Brooks’ 1968 comedy “The Producers”, in which the onscreen audience begins roaring with hysterical laughter over the stage production ofSpringtime for Hitler(though, curiously, not during the genuinely funny musical numbers), showing a far more enthusiastic response than the actual one in the movie theater. In this case, the film promises the escalation of intelligence while simultaneously dumbing down to almost unfathomable levels. What begins as a bizarre hybrid of (even if the presented science is a bit of hoodoo) overheated Hong Kong crime drama and unfocused faux theoretical science documentary clumsily blended, though, even from the start, there is clearly a collision of purpose within the film’s design, that is intended to set the stage for a collision of these insoluble genre elements, though it proves to be an insoluble concoction; at least in the conceptual methods of the director. Certainly there have been many prior examples of SF films which have merged unlikely genre tropes, yet few have attempted such a humorlessly straightforward introduction of pop art kineticism (the now overly ritualized Hong Kong bullet battles) and dry academia (no matter how screwball the concepts), intended to veer onto a radically abstruse ontological path; all intended to be taken seriously while each intrudes upon the central thread of the film: the ascent of Lucy to an improbable (even in the context of trashy science fiction) form of transmundane entity.
Certainly, this set up of fractured circumstances falls flat in its reach to justify the kind of Kubrickian metaphysical leap that the film rather clumsily inserts in between bout of hyperbolic high caliber athleticism, nor does the movie achieve greater intellectual legitimacy through the pedantic academia presented by none other than Morgan Freeman (blurring the lines of his frequent authoritatively toned documentary narrative voice, which becomes peculiarly reminiscent of such pop culture family fare as “March of the Penguins” rather than associative with transcendent deep thinking). Freeman portrays Prof. Norman, a fictional renowned expert on the generally discredited 10% human brain usage theory, but his role is almost scandalously decorative- neither his nor his endless, empty Spielbergian stares of awe contribute the slightest to the film. Freeman is a supremely talented actor who seems to be willingly engaged in roles which use his mollifying manner and voice as an increasingly generic brand of thespian sedative, yet beyond the posture of a kindly figure of dignity, there is little to justify his presence. To be fair, in this instance, Besson’s script gives him absolutely no wiggle room in which any idiosyncratic depth might be attempted; the character is essentially a walking dissertation. Still, the actor must have seen this before the cameras rolled. Which leaves any semblance of empathy to be the burden of the lead character Lucy, played by Scarlett Johansson, who, despite an unfortunate creeping apathetical transmutation, manages skillful shadings with a role inexplicably calling for fewer degrees of humanity as her character’s mind reaches its fullest human potential.
The resultant metaphysical mumbo jumbo turns out to be merely a smokescreen to divert attention away from one of the most deplorably illogical crime movie plots in recent years, not to mention the absurdity of the credibility deadening (again, even taken within the context of nonsense science) incomprehensibly spot-on bursts of insight by Prof. Norman explaining to his fellow scientists the significance of Lucy’s rapidly escalating transmogrifications (always a sign of creative insecurity, when a director feels obliged to italicize the meaning of the obscurity they are presenting), despite the fact that he would have no prior knowledge of such seemingly random special effects parlor tricks.
What could Besson have been thinking?
The movie ends with an absurdly meaningless utterance: “Life was given to us a billion years ago. Now you know what to do with it.” If that rather deliberately enigmatic quotation (a quixotic obtuseness which the film hasn’t earned) is meant as a pretext to overreach and produce patently silly movies, then mission accomplished.