Reviewed by Drew Ninnis
Director: Luc Besson
Screenplay: Luc Besson
Runtime: 90 minutes
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Min-sik Choi, Amr Waked.
Trailer: “It's a little rudimentary, but you're on the right track.” (warning: becoming smart makes you kind of a dick. Or a peer reviewer for an academic journal.)
Plot: Bystander Lucy is caught in a drug deal gone wrong, and promptly turned into a drug mule for a shady Taiwanese cartel. But all is not right with the new drug; and Lucy begins to experience an exponential increase in her brain power. Utilising these newly found magical powers, Lucy strikes out on a quest for revenge, struggling to come to terms with the new conditions of her existence.
Review: Writer-director Luc Bresson’s latest film, Lucy, neatly encapsulates the phlogiston thinking of our age –packing as much bad science and pop-psychology clichés as possible into a slick action package. And it won’t be just the science or philosophy literate audience members who will find themselves spluttering at the screen; any audience member with half a brain will quickly grow tired of the sci-fi and action-revenge tropes clumsily deployed here. Lucy gets stuck in a no-mans-land of film – too smart to be an action film, too dumb to be anything else. Billed as a feminist statement, instead the film demonstrates that the protagonist role can be filled by any character, as long as they enough of an empty cipher to fill the vacancy at the centre of the screen.
The film opens on Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) arguing with a dirt bag in a Stetson she dated for a week, who is trying to manipulate her into making a suspicious drop for him with the ominous sounding Mr. Jiang. Even without enhancement, Lucy’s spidey-sense is set tingling by aforementioned DB’s manipulations; and she is essentially coerced into making the delivery. Thus begins Lucy’s descent into South Korea’s ugly underbelly, as she finds herself caught up in the delivery of a new drug to distributors overseas. The opening of the film is taughtly paced, shot, and directed; maintaining tension and delivering some genuine jumps. The setup forms the most enjoyable part of the film, with a standout but brief performance of Julian Rhind-Tutt as a cavalier functionary of the cartel. From there onwards, it’s a bumpy ride.
But lets pause a minute, and decode the setup that Lucy relies on for its story telling – because I have no idea how this film could be plausibly sold as a win for the representation of women on screen, with anything but the lowest of standards (i.e. Hollywood standards). As established and telegraphed through a range of filmic elements, Lucy is a dependent sucker prone to the manipulations of men (after all, DB got her there in the first place – despite their parting of ways); she is dressed in a way that can only be described as leopard print hooker-chic. Both the script and Johansson emphasise a certain dizziness, a stereotyped blondeness in her unaltered state – as she stumbles through a simple conversation at hotel reception. Once the shit hits the fan, Lucy switches between crying and begging for her life – fair enough, a standard civilian action in a drug deal gone wrong. Then begin the stupid questions, and the wilful misapprehension of her situation; played to the hilt, in order to make Lucy’s dramatic transformation later even more pronounced. Dead either way, surely any sane person is going to shut up, do what they want, and try to find a crack to get out through – like any mugging victim would. Not Lucy, she’s hysteria all the way. Only man-made drugs can make her a fully self-possessed and empowered character. Not a good start for the portrayal of a female role.
But all of that changes, after a scene of cringe-worthy violence against a woman by a standard sinister Asian type. The kilo of drugs implanted in her intestine is ruptured, and Lucy is transformed into the villain from Terminator 2: Judgement Day. Thus begins her rampage for revenge and a way out, assisted by the fact that the new drug is a synthesised version of (the fictional) CPH4. Why is that helpful, you ask? Because it is claimed that this is the drug that, in tiny amounts, is naturally responsible for the developing brain of a foetus – like an ‘atomic explosion,’ one character remarks. The science-patter present in Lucy makes the discussion of various phenomena in Star Trek: The Next Generation look worthy of being published in the journal Nature, by comparison.
What follows is a series of interstitials of percentages, as the action ramps up and Lucy demonstrates more of her magical science powers. Morgan Freeman appears in the dual role of the world’s leading neuroscientist, Professor Norman, and theSouth Park parody of Morgan Freeman. Not yet stripped of his National Academy of Science fellowship, he delivers to the audience such scientifically established facts as: humans only use 10% of their brain (sigh), more brainpower means controlling other people’s minds (oh dear), and that a fire-like element is released during combustion (I gave up listing actual errors in the film). At some point, I began to suspect that Lucy was just a cunning plan to assassinate Neil deGrasse Tyson by giving him a stroke.
But the stupidity of the film isn’t limited to the science; at one point a character remarks that ‘the first human was called Lucy’ in a vain attempt to foreshadow the “last human” overtones of the film’s conclusion. This would be a revelation, that pronouns within language – and Christian English naming conventions! – predate human kind. But perhaps this is uncharitable of me; for a simple thriller, a lot of these qualms can be hand waved away. Not so for Lucy, which attempts to extract a lot of its faux coolness from its thin lacquer of intelligence. Also be prepared for annoyingly intercut National Geographic footage, to emphasise the biological materialism meets philosophical eliminativism that powers most of the bullshitting of the film.
Bresson delivers the goods in a few action sequences, but largely disappoints throughout the rest. A gratuitous car chase checks the right boxes, and satisfies despite being highly derivative (although to be fair, how much originality can you find in chase scene at this point?). The rest suffers from the superhero effect – giving Lucy too many powers too quickly, eliminating reducing any suspense to “wow, cool” moments and terminating most fight scenes too quickly and easily. Eventually, her capabilities become child wish fulfilment crossed with Wikipedia super-user status.
Overall, the mood and pacing are good even if the script is groanworthy; and the film doesn’t overstay its welcome. Much could have been forgiven if Lucy stuck the landing; sadly it doesn’t, choosing instead to press the 2001: A Space Odysseybutton, with much less success (and an unintended laugh at USB sticks; a message to the world delivered in a format more prone to loss than BIC pens. I imagine Morgan Freeman firing that baby up, and finding he’s accidentally filled it with his unwatched episodes of Scandal). One thing I did learn from the film is that the smarter you are, the more of a monomaniacal arsehole you must be – take that Einstein, et al. Whereas genius used to be partnered with madness, now it walks hand in hand with what Hollywood imagines autism must be like.
Does Lucy represent a step forward for women in cinema? No. The sex of the lead may be female, but the role is denuded of any trappings of gender or identity – highlighting that the role of a protagonist in most action films is to be a featureless machine that drives the plot forward and provides the occasional quip. Replace Lucy with the T-1000 and you have pretty much the same film. There is absolutely a film to be made that expands the identity of women in cinema, and challenges the lazy stereotypes or tropes that we are currently stuck with. But this film ain’t it.
Rating: Two magic USBs, Lucy, give him two – because you know they’re going to lose the first one, and fight over whether the Paris lab or the California lab gets the second one! Use your brain, girl. (Apologies to Jade and Kale.)