by Kathie Smith
Scarlett Johansson will never be accused of making uninteresting choices. In the past 12 months alone she has starred in two of the best movies of 2013 and 2014—as the disembodied voice of a computer in Her and as a taciturn alien abductress in Under the Skin. Add her small roles in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Chef, and Don Jon and you have a collection of films in which Johansson is cast no doubt because of her physical allure (including her husky voice), but also because she successfully amplifies her characters with something that I can only describe as a steeled charisma. Luc Besson’s pop science actioner Lucy, yet another intriguing choice in which she plays the title role, surrounds Johansson’s character with ample stylistic flourishes but unfortunately only provides a paper-thin plot and wooden script that largely relies on Johansson’s presence, swagger and all, as the only glue to hold this train wreck together.
Director: Luc Besson
Producer: Virginie Silla
Writer: Luc Besson
Cinematographer: Thierry Arbogast
Music: Eric Serra
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Choi Min-sik, Amr Wakes, Pilou Asbæk, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Analeigh Tipton, Jan Oliver Schroeder, Luca Angeletti, Nicolas Phongpheth
US Theatrical Release: July 25, 2014
US Distributor: Universal Pictures
The movie opens with a different Lucy—our biped ancestor from 3.2 million years ago—crouching beside a lake as Johansson’s narration questions what mankind has done since. What does our fellow hominid have to do with a student living in Taiwan? In this movie where everything is everything, Johansson’s Lucy is about to reconnect with her distant relative by way of a synthetic drug that allows her to access her brain’s full potential. (Insert the movie’s inability to access its brain joke here.) Standing outside a five star hotel in Taipei, Lucy’s dodgy boyfriend Richard (Pilou Asbæk of A Hijacking) is trying to convince her to do him a favor: go to the front desk, ask for Mr. Jang (Choi Min-sik of Oldboy), a South Korean working his trade in Taiwan, and give him a locked suitcase. Smelling a rat, Lucy refuses until Richard gives her little choice by handcuffing the case to her arm. The briefcase, as it turns out, contains CPH4, a blue crystalline drug that promotes rapid cell growth and yields a powerful, superhuman effect. And just like that, Lucy gets pulled into a drug ring with a kilo bag of CPH4 surgically inserted into her abdomen for transport to the U.S.
Much of the opening exposition fails logic from multiple angles, which wouldn’t matter if the propulsion of the story were enough to keep you engaged. Instead, Lucy takes the pace of fast-slow-slow, intercutting Lucy’s ordeal with stock nature and science footage meant to be symbolic and with a laughably fundamental lecture on the evolutionary properties of the human brain by Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman). Professor Norman’s work is based on the (debunked) notion that humans only utilize 10% of their brain’s potential and on the hypothetically limitless possibilities if we found the ability to tap into that unused potential. Meanwhile, a guard in an unexplained dungeon where Lucy is being held makes the mistake of kicking her in the stomach, releasing the CPH4 into her bloodstream, and making her not only Professor Norman’s perfect test subject but also a sexy, mean revenge machine.
Besson tries his hand at tackling some big questions about what is locked inside our collective unconscious and about unexploited human potential, but it’s a faint attempt at best. Once Lucy reaches 100% of her brain capacity, she flips through the millennia with a swipe of her hand, accessing the history of the United States, reaching all the way back to the Jurassic era and the dinosaurs, and finally landing in Ethiopia face-to-face with her evolutionary ancestor as they share a creation moment in the form of Michelangelo’s fresco in the Sistine Chapel—finger to finger. These grand themes are, needless to say, slightly incongruous with Lucy’s action leanings, where it occasionally finds its groove. Unsurprisingly, the most effective sequences are not when Lucy elucidates her scientific prowess, but when she assertively enacts her revenge, most notably in a satisfying slow motion scene overlaid with Mozart’s Requiem when she returns to Mr. Jang’s hotel, a gun in each hand, wearing a hospital frock over her jeans and t-shirt (you almost expect to see a white dove fly through the shot a la John Woo).
Lucy’s chase leads her to Paris to track down the remaining three parcels of the drug, meet with Professor Norman, and induce her brain to explode on full tilt. The risible finale combines a showdown between the Parisian police and the South Korean gangsters—guns and rocket launchers blazing—and Lucy maxing out her grey matter in an abstract crescendo that results in the most badass flash drive known to mankind. Unfortunately, Lucy fails to be a return to form for Besson, leaving any hopes of seeing a Scarlett Johansson-led fusion of Le Femme Nikita, The Transporter and Unleashed in a pile of droll sci-fi dust. Instead of making good on its thoughtful veneer, Lucy seems to merely be a prop for jokes about blonds, women, and their inability to use their brain. Those that want a good action film with a female lead, brains and brawn would be best to stay home and watch Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire.