Luc Besson’s movies for me have always been the definition of a “guilty pleasure.” They’re usually big, loud, implausible action-packed adventures, often with a kick-ass heroine in a leading role (Natalie Portman in The Professional, Anne Parillaud in La Femme Nikita, Milla Jovovich in The Fifth Element). Now we can add Scarlett Johansson’s Lucy to that list, although as far as B-movies go, Lucy pushes the limit pretty damn far.
It starts off in Taiwan, with Lucy as a naive college student who’s being tricked by a guy she’s been partying with for a week into delivering a mysterious metal case into the hands of some Taiwanese gangsters. So far so good, as this early part of the movie plays into the skeazy, underground, semi-exploitative tone that characterized the great trashy films in Besson’s resume like The Professional and Nikita. He knows how to play it so that we know this is trash and he knows that it’s trash, so we can all relax and experience the thrill that goes with secretly enjoying something that qualifies as pulp material. Where the nuttiness comes into play is the pseudo-intellectual gobbledygook (this is one time where I feel that term is more than appropriate) that takes over the second half of the movie, and it’s so insane and at the same time ludicrously detailed, that I can’t tell whether Besson really believes what’s going on here or not.
See, the film is premised on the myth that humans use only 10% of their brain, so what happens if we were somehow able to channel 100%? A straight-faced Morgan Freeman (I guess there’s really no other kind) plays a professor who’s spent his entire career developing a theory about this notion (what an amazing waste of a career that is), but since humans actually don’t use just 10% of their brain (I hope everyone reading this knows that), we’re operating in the realm of total fantasy right off the bat anyway. But okay, Besson wants have fun with this and say “what if,” so I’m on board with it. When Lucy hands over the case in the violent exploitation sequence of the first half, it turns out to be filled with bags of blue powder, and she’s kidnapped by the bad guys and forced to become a drug mule, one of the bags inserted into her stomach in order to smuggle the drugs into Europe. Of course, this drug spills inside her body, and turns her into a superhuman, as it opens up her cerebral capacity and she starts to access more and more of her brain powers, becoming nothing less than a combination of Jedi/goddess/witch who can do literally anything, at least before she suffers from the all consuming fate of her powers, meeting a similar end to her operating system character in Her, believe it or not.
Scarlett Johansson is the perfect person to play this role, as she’s been labeled a kind of superwoman in everything she appears in lately (couple this with Her and Under the Skin and it could be a “Scarlett rules the universe” movie marathon night). As soon as Lucy undergoes her transformation she becomes robotic and unemotional, embodying the familiar ScarJo screen presence that she seems to be most comfortable with of late. But even though the movie’s never really boring (it’s too consistently over the top to be that) it does suffer from an inherent lack of conflict after Lucy becomes all powerful. Apparently these bad guys are still after her as she tracks down the other drug mules (she needs the blue stuff to sustain herself), killing everyone in her path along the way and showing up at Professor Freeman’s house for help, but there’s just no way that anyone can possibly stop her and so narratively, there’s no real suspense to maintain. Despite this it does manage to hold our interest because Besson still wants to wade into the waters of philosophical explanation about the origins of the universe and man’s inability, I suppose, to appreciate and contemplate all that we are in this world. Lucy can do this though, however briefly, and there are scenes in this movie that seem to want to rival The Tree of Life as she takes on the dawn of man and literally comes face to face with her namesake, the first Lucy (yes, that one).
Some of the scientific explanations are so intricate and yet so ridiculous that you wonder how much intelligence was harnessed simply in coming up with passages of dialogue that mean so little and run so deep. That in itself is mind-boggling in its stupidity and at the same time, refreshingly original. Is this a film that can accurately be called a great bad movie? Maybe so. I can’t quite recommend it and yet I sort of admire the audacity it takes to go so out there in such an unapologetic way. Perhaps you should just see it for yourself.