By Simon Miraudo
August 1, 2014
God is a woman. Well, she is now anyway. In Luc Besson‘s Lucy, Scarlett Johansson goes from doe-eyed mafia pawn to all-powerful superbeing, and all it took was accidentally absorbing the intellect-enhancing drug placed beside her abdomen by a Korean cartel. The rest of us, meanwhile, have to choke down so-called superfood Quinoa just to get an extra boost of riboflavin. It tastes awful, and it doesn’t even make you omnipotent.
When Johansson’s Lucy – a hard-partying American student not-studying in Taipei – agrees to deliver a briefcase on behalf of her boyfriend-of-a-week, she becomes embroiled in the brutal plans of mob boss Mr. Jang (Choi Min-sik). Inside the case are bags of powdered drug CPH4, which promises to unlock the constraints of our brain and allow humans access to the 90 per cent not yet activated. As we learn from Professor Norman’s (Morgan Freeman) concurrent lecture in Paris, we’re stuck using 10 per cent, while dolphins are running at 20, kind of explaining why they’re always laughing at us. Jang’s men make poor Lucy an unwitting mule, placing the cargo inside her (under the skin, even). The bag, of course, breaks, and she instantly sheds those measly mortal sensations of fear, pain, sentimentality and morality, replacing them with clarity, confidence, impossible intellect, and swift murder skills. This is, as intertitles handily remind us throughout proceedings, simply the result of her hitting 20 per cent. When she finally reaches 100… well, it is a sight to see.
Luc Besson has made many an entertaining film before; this, however, is his first in some time to be devoid of troubling caveats. Léon is a cracking hitman thriller, unfortunately carrying the albatross of subtextual paedophilia (the textual scenes were mercifully left on the cutting room floor). The Fifth Element was a vibrant, uber-90s sci-fi romp that made the grave mistake of thinking additional Chris Tucker was better than none at all. The Taken franchise Besson wrote and produced rebirthed Liam Neeson, though it also suggests Europe exists solely to steal your white daughter. The one obstacle to liking Lucy is whether or not you buy into its central premise: that our brain-boxes are working at just 10 per cent of their capacity, and we could evolve into transcendent, dolphin-eclipsing deities if we tapped into those hidden recesses. It’s a bogus hypothesis previously posited by Neil Burger’s Limitless and countless stoned philosophy students, but, tellingly, probably not that many neuroscientists.
Lucy goes much larger than Limitless, and thus earns forgiveness for furthering this particular fallacy. Besson’s big-money chase sequences are inventively composed by cinematographer Thierry Arbogast, and the final act’s nutso, cerebrum-melting montage defies convention by giving an action movie an emotional climax rather than an explosive one. Most indicative of Besson’s unexpected ambition is the story he ultimately tells: about mankind’s march towards the technological singularity, the oneness of all matter in the universe, and man’s Prometheus-like attempt to wrest power from the Gods despite not totally knowing what to do with it.
This marks Freeman’s second word on the subject in six months, except Transcendence – shockingly – turned out so much sillier (thanks to a terrorist cake attack and the worst haircut in Kate Mara‘s life). He hangs around mostly to explain pseudoscience, and, once Lucy gets in touch to say his research is right, to look on at her in awe. He’s very convincing. Choi Min-sik, the great Korean actor, speaks solely in his native tongue and leaves a memorable mark. That said, the title of Lucy indicates where most of our attention will be paid, and deservedly so.
Johansson’s performance is really quite excellent, and all the more impressive when compared to her past two science fiction jaunts (Her, Under the Skin), noting the subtle calibrations made to differentiate each turn. In Her she voiced an artificially-intelligent operating system, and in Under the Skin she played an alien who took advantage of her ‘Scarlett Johansson’-looking skinsuit to harvest men. This triptych of sci-fi features cover freakishly similar ground: all three ponder what it means to be human, why we keep seeking something beyond, what it would feel like to not be human at all; to lose that humanity, or realise it was never there; to pretend you are human, and have the rest of the world remind you otherwise; to be one with all things, and remain singular somehow; to be within and without.
In Lucy, we get fleeting glimpses of her past life – by meeting her roommate, witnessing a call home to her mother, getting flashes of a rowdy night out – but from her initial jolt of genius, she seems to abandon everything that makes her her. A moral compass, doubt, suspicion, hurt: those traits belong to the unevolved. Are these human imperfections – the kind she sought to mimic with her creaky, breathy voice in Her; the physical connections (and sweets) she craved in Under the Skin – what we’ll one day lose in the quest for enlightenment? Will it be worth it? Like a vitamin sticking out of a sundae, Lucy smuggles important questions within its rambunctious, dizzy-making set pieces. And through it all, Johansson remains totally compelling. Lucy is too much fun. Scarlett could have had a perfect year if it wasn’t for that whole SodaStream mess. They say cleanliness is close to godliness, and in 2014, controversy was all that kept Scarlett Johansson from achieving as much.
Lucy is now showing in cinemas.