Roundabouts six months ago, a friend and I set out to see Luc Besson’s Lucy during its theatrical run. We hadn’t seen each other in a while and were chatting so merrily that we accidentally went to the wrong theatre.
When we found out our mistake, we shrugged it off and decided to sit through Woody Allen’s empty confectionery Magic in the Moonlight instead. The less said about that one, the better.
For a long time after, I didn’t have much interest in going back and giving Lucy a watch, under the sneaking suspicion that that anecdote would prove to be more interesting than the movie itself. But after hearing that it wasn’t actually that bad, I decided to take a look.
Surprisingly, Lucy did turn out to be more interesting than the story behind that mishap. The problem is that while Lucy is definitely interesting, it’s mostly interesting for how it fails.
Scarlett Johansson stars as the titular Lucy, a woman who receives superpowers after the bag of drugs smuggled in her abdomen ruptures. Yes, Lucy is perhaps the first movie in history about how drug smuggling leads to God-like power and the reshaping of human knowledge. I guess we really are running out of ways to give people superpowers, but turning Maria Full of Grace into a sci-fi action thriller seems like an odd way to go.
After being forced to smuggle a bag of a new designer drug, the bag leaks massive amounts of the drug into Lucy’s body, causing her to unlock previously unused portions of her brain, first turning her into a hyper-intelligent killing machine with perfect control of her own body, and eventually into a powerful psychokinetic who can do basically whatever the script calls for. So it starts out as La Femme Nikita and ends up as Akira.
Even in a genre movie landscape where Marvel movies regularly bend the laws of plausibility and physics over a chair and go to town like it’s the last day of spring break, Lucy feels like an anachronism in just how much it’s built on science so soft you could melt it on a broken radiator.
Like that Bradley Cooper thing from a few years back, Lucy is built around the whole “humans only use ten percent of their brain” thing, and while I’m usually perfectly fine accepting whatever made-up pseudo-science a genre movie can throw at me…..come on, really? We’ve known that that’s patently untrue for like a million years. But Besson and Morgan Freeman’s scientist character both seem perfectly fine believing that a human with just ten more percent of their brainpower can control radio waves or go into peoples’ memories, or change their hair color by sheer force of will.
Even for someone as indifferent to realism in movies as me, Lucy spends most of its run time straining my suspension of disbelief like my belt at a buffet. Maybe it wouldn’t be such a problem if Lucy didn’t seem to be trying to present itself as the next hard science genre odyssey, the next Interstellar but with more gunplay and Yakuza thugs.
It seems so convinced of itself, and while usually a movie playing the completely ridiculous with conviction is something I can get behind, in this case I was distracted by the sound of Neil Degrasse-Tyson having a breakdown just off screen.
And to add further problems, when Lucy essentially enters God-Mode in the second half or so, unlocking powers of telekinesis, omniscience and even bloody time travel, the movie seems to have no clue what to do with all the big ideas that it just dumped all over the table.
A new character is brought in to hang around Lucy for no reason that ever seems properly explained, solely because we need someone to be endangered now that Lucy can dispatch any threat with a flick of the wrist and we need a way to generate tension.
The finale is meant to be some kind of epic, transcendental revelation about the nature of reality, the universe and everything, but it all feels like half-baked nonsense passed off as profound insight. Something about time being the only unit of measurement and one plus one not being two and a USB stick made out of stars.
And the thing that kinda bugs me more than anything else is that when Lucy isn’t trying to be so damn smart textually, it’s actually pretty damn fun formally at times. An early sequence actually uses symbolic editing, where non-contextual images are intercut with the action to create a kind of visual metaphor.
When bad guys are closing in on Lucy pre-transformation, Besson will cut to footage from a nature show of cheetahs stalking a gazelle. That’s interesting! That’s using editing techniques in ways that most mainstream blockbusters don’t, that’s using a different kind of toolset than we’re used to seeing!
Sure it may be a bit obvious, but it’s something new. Once in a while, Lucy will break out little formal touches like that that at least feel like someone was trying to bring something new to the table.
In a better movie, with a better script, little touches like that would have gone a long way, but in this case they just feel frustrating because they get swallowed up by a mediocre script bogged down by pretension and big ideas it has no idea how to handle or communicate properly.
Even though Lucy is, at the end of the day, something of a mess, I can’t fault it at least for being ambitious. I mean how many action thrillers from recent memory can you name that end up with the hero uncovering the secrets of the universe and becoming some kind of leggy super-diety?
And maybe with a better script, Lucy could have been something. But alas, all we’re left with is a confused jumble of ideas and action-set pieces occasionally lived up by some formal charm or decent effects work.