Lucy is a film that’s difficult to review – easy to fault, but hard to dislike, and a draft of my review looked like not much more than a laundry list of problems before arriving at a seemingly counterintuitive solid recommendation. But it’s an inspired blockbuster that never loses its sense of fun and shows just how far a bit of visual imagination can take you.
Luc Besson’s latest film had a premise that was widely known, and just as thoroughly mocked – Scarlett Johansson’s titular character is forcibly made to transport a new drug by gangsters by having it surgically placed inside her intestines, but it leaks into her system, giving her quickly developing superpowers; the film ostensibly hinges upon the myth that humans only use 10% of the brain (their ‘cerebral capacity’, the phrase the film’s script mentions approximately one thousand times), and the speculation of what 100% might look like. It’s a narrative premise which internet commentators have been enjoying debunking as pseudo-science, it might not be too far gone to say that it’s sparked the most conversation over a scientific measure in a sci-fi movie since the advent of ‘midichlorians’. However, once you take these parameters with a grain (or more) of salt, it’s clear it’s a simple framework for broader notions of human potential and evolution, for a pretty self-evidently silly (if not self-aware) narrative thrust that becomes more interested in a video-game sense of progression than any ties to hard science. Admittedly, the film makes any such spectator allowances difficult – we’re given A LOT of ‘academic’ lectures and hypotheses on the phenomenon – but if you leave logical apprehensions at the door it becomes an enjoyable and interesting experience.
I’ve already mentioned its videogame design, as we are given stills intermittently throughout telling us what level Lucy’s cerebral capacity has reached – 50%, 60%, etc – giving the snappily paced narrative a real sense of “Level Up!” or “Achievement Unlocked” progression as her powers and abilities to manipulate everything around her expand. But it becomes a deliberately badly measured game, as Lucy’s abilities develop far more quickly than what she’s up against.1 This saps a lot of the narrative tension very quickly – no number of Korean gangsters sent after her raise the sense of narrative stakes, her invincibility is never really in doubt – but the film is saved by wonderfully ludicrous set pieces like a Italian Job-on-speed car chase through Paris and the wild visions as Lucy approaches the mythical 100%.
Where this film succeeds is where a film like Inception for me most disappointed – in Nolan’s film, the trailer and premise hint at the sheer imagination and possibilities working in a dreamscape, but aside from those introductory scenes of the city collapsing, the bulk of the film unfolded in the subconscious of the most boring person alive, of generic action movie set pieces rather than the unlimited freedom of space and imagination the parameters of the film allowed. Lucy’s powers quickly promise the abilities to transcend rules of time and space as she becomes the next stage in our evolution, of an omnipotent, omniscient being – there are trippy visions and effects in Lucy’s metamorphosis that essentially deliver what the premise hints at. It’s not as effective as the similar climax of 2001: A Space Odyssey (which the film clearly nods to) or as interesting as the Lovecraftian revelations of the less prestigious but still inspired Roger Corman film, X: The Man With X-Ray Eyes, but it’s pretty wild and satisfies. Even better if you read the whole film as a prequel to Spike Jonze’s Her.
The film doesn’t ask a lot from Johansson for the majority, but she’s very good. We spend zero time establishing any sort of backstory of characteristics, and at 89 minutes (a rarity for these sorts of blockbusters) it feels as if Besson had a bet whether he could turn in the film at under an hour and a half, as everything is established so quickly. It means it never lags, but occasionally suffers due to lack of necessary expansion – Lucy’s transformation is a little rushed early on, and sub-plots like her connection with French police officer barely register, and it also makes the bad parts (everything with Freeman) stick out that much more. Choi Min-Sik’s casting is quite inspired, and there’s a nice visual allusion to Oldboy in the design of his penthouse early on, and he’s very menacing and enjoyable as the primary villain, even during his impotence in the face of Lucy’s transcendant abilities; and his introduction is extremely dark and effective. Morgan Freeman is the opposite, in a role so tired and predictable it would be offensive to the many good character actors in Hollywood to even call it “typecasting”. It’s not his fault he’s faced with the dull segments of exposition, but he needs to stop signing on for roles of scientists/politicians/gods or anyone with ‘wisdom’. In one of the most cringe-worthy Morgan Freeman-esque scenes of all time, his character as the world authority on the 10% myth gives a long, authoritative sounding lecture on the topic, and is then asked what might happen if a human brain reached 100% of its capacity. Pause for effect, then “I have no idea”. Cue laughter.
Ultimately, there are other problems as well, many superficial – bad unironic overuse of stock footage, a spot of dodgy CGI here and there – but nothing that derails the film as a whole. It’s a film that, for me, closely resembles Snowpiercer – an auteurist, wacky blockbuster that overcomes its flaws and embraces elements of the ridiculous to deliver satisfying cinematic experiences and incredible set-pieces. It’s not as thematically interesting as Bong Joon-ho’s film, but it has ideas even outside of the ones it hammers home repeatedly – around time, around human connections, and so on – that actually leaves the audience room to think about, while at the same time begging to not be taken too seriously. Essentially, if you can get on the film’s level, whatever that level might exactly be, you’re in for a good time.
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