Having been a Luc Besson fan for decades, I couldn't resist the trailer for 'Lucy' and, having now seen the movie, I can say that it's a particular treat for anyone who gets Besson.
Now, that isn't the same as saying that this is a good movie or a bad movie, it's simply a Besson movie and, in fact, it may be the most Besson movie I've seen thus far. With a $40m budget, he was able to do things that he simply couldn't do in 'Subway', 'Nikita' or even 'Léon': The Professional'. What he does here is visually stunning, making this a ride that goes a lot further than anything he's attempted thus far, resulting in an art film that references '2001: A Space Odyssey' and 'The Tree of Life' as much as it does any of his many action influences.
The concept is scientifically flawed from the outset and it gets progressively sillier. That we're not turned away is a credit to Besson and to his lead actor, Scarlett Johansson, who has all the charisma needed to dominate this film. She's rarely off screen and she's magnetic, whatever she's doing, even if it's nothing at all.
She doesn't outline the concept to us though, as that's left to the most trustworthy character in the story, namely the one played by Morgan Freeman. Prof Samuel Morgan is a scientist who lectures on man's use of his own brain, explaining that we don't use much of it. While animals tend to use 3% to 5% of theirs, we use up to 10% of ours. Dolphins are the only creatures ahead of us, as they use 20% of theirs. This entire film is a fanciful answer to the old chestnut that he's literally asked by one of his students: 'What if we could use 100% of our brains?' After lecturing on the subject for quite a while, his answer is still only, 'I have no idea.'
We do, of course, because we watched the trailer and we get to experience it through the exploits of the title character, Lucy, clearly named for the female Australopithecus who lived 3.2 million years ago in Ethiopia, ironically both discovered by a man named Johansen and named after the Beatles song, 'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds', which is clearly about drug use.
The irony is that Lucy is played here by Scarlett Johansson and her presence in the film is built by the implantation of drugs within her belly by a Taiwanese drug lord called Mr Jang. She has a Debbie Harry look to her and she reminds of a young Rosanna Arquette from certain angles, but Johansson effortlessly enforces this role as hers alone and rides it throughout.
Mr Jang aims for her to be one of a set of drug mules carrying plastic pouches of purple powder into the major capitals of Europe under their skin, but hers ruptures under the unwanted attentions of a lackey at the other end who wants more from her than just her drugs. And here we begin, as the drug inside her is a synthetic version of CPH4, produced naturally by mothers in very small quantities to allow babies to grow inside them. This allows Lucy to grow in mental stature, giving her use of more and more of her brain as the film runs on.
I liked how she showed this progression, turning from a worried, not very bright nobody into a very powerful somebody, but the script is limited by the running time of the movie. We only have 90 minutes to get her to 100% of her brain power, which means that she has to make a lot of leaps which take us firmly into the realm of pseudoscience, as silly as they are entertaining.
Even as early as the point she makes her escape from Mr Jang's drug gang, she's clearly someone to be reckoned with. She takes everyone down with panache, pulls out a bullet from her chest without acknowledging pain and heads for a hospital to have the drugs removed. Now she can read Mandarin and understand brain surgery. When she rings mum, during the procedure, she explains that she can remember everything, all the way back to the womb. As silly as this gets, it's the relentlessness of these magic moments that connects with us.
Really it's not about the fact that her friend's laptop is mysteriously fast enough and connected enough to allow her to read all of Prof Norman's work in no time flat, it's about the fact that she rings him up and tells him he's primitive but on the right track. It's not about the fact that she can drop an entire hallway full of cops with a single wave of her hand, it's that she keeps police captain Del Rio with her as a reminder that all the things that make her human are fading away, like fear, desire and pain.
And on we go, wondering precisely what we're watching and what it all means. The tension of the film is relatively nonexistent because the only character we're given time enough to connect with is Lucy and she's apparently invulnerable, far more than any prior Besson heroine. Del Rio and Prof Norman are props, as is Mr Jang, so we fail to react to any danger they might find themselves in. If anything, we feel for the script, which escalates so fast and so far that we wonder if it's going to burst into flame. This film runs 89 minutes but feels more like half an hour.
With all the metaphysical trips going on, which take Lucy as far back as the Big Bang, the one that stood out for me the most was the driving scene. Besson is known for these, having written and produced four 'Taxi' movies (plus the American remake of the first) and three 'Transporter' movies, and he scripted strong car chase scenes as far back as 'Subway' in 1985, but this is the best such I've seen from him yet. Nobody has done this sort of thing as well as Besson and he keeps on raising the bar.
I have no idea if there's any real substance in 'Lucy', which falls apart at the slightest analysis and often doesn't even take that long, but it's as fast paced a ride as I've seen in a long while and it's ruthlessly magnetic. While not everyone will appreciate the melding of art film with action comedy, that's my sort of movie and I was as thoroughly entertained by this as I was utterly dismissive of its scentific grounding and internal logic. Besson fans will lap it up.
And, of course, this proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that Scarlett Johansson can more than handle being the lead in a movie, even one with actors as capable as Morgan Freeman and Choi Min-sik, the Korean legend from 'Shiri', 'Oldboy' and 'I Saw the Devil'.
Are you paying attention, Marvel? I'd pay good money to go see her in the lead in an action movie long before I would Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth or any of the other superhero actors you're foisting on us. Why do movies about strong women have to be made by the French or the Japanese? Are Americans really that misogynistic? I don't think so. Just those in Hollywood greenlighting movies.