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“Lucy”

WEB Lucy Studio Canal 001

Courtesy of Studio Canal

David Ives - published on 07/25/14

I was desperately looking for any sign that Luc Besson recognized what a ridiculous movie he was making. It never came.

A couple of weeks ago the family and I headed off to the local megaplex to watch the RiffTrax guys do their thing with Sharknado. It was a blast. The funny thing is, though, Sharknado is one of those bad movies that’s fun even without the RiffTrax commentary thanks to its combination of horrible acting, shoddy effects, and absolutely ludicrous science. I mean, who knew you could destroy a tornado by flying a helicopter up to its edge and lobbing a homemade bomb into it? The truth is, even though the actors play it straight for the camera, Sharknado is obviously a farce, and while watching it you never once feel like the filmmakers weren’t in on the joke.

About half way into writer/director Luc Besson’s new film, Lucy, I was desperately looking for any sign that he or Scarlett Johansson or Morgan Freeman or anybody else for that matter recognized what a ridiculous movie it was they were making. It never came.

How can I explain the experience of watching Lucy? Have you ever been in a conversation with a thirteen year old who knows how everything in life works because they’ve read half a J.D. Salinger book, and they’re explaining in all seriousness to you the absolute truth about sociology, philosophy, religion, and science in that arrogant faux world-weary tone only an adolescent can manage? And remember how you sat there staring blankly at them as they prattled on because most of what they were saying was demonstrably false and the rest wouldn’t make any sense even if you were whacked out of your mind on peyote? Now imagine if you gave that kid tens of millions of dollars and told them to go make a movie. Chances are, the end result would look a lot like Lucy.

The film begins with the titular character, an American student (thirty year old Scarlett Johansson) studying abroad in Tapei, inadvertently running afoul of local drug kingpin, Mr. Jang (Min-sik Choi, the original Oldboy!). Forced into being a drug mule for Jang, things go from bad to worse for Lucy when the pack full of experimental narcotics surgically implanted in her stomach ruptures and empties the (literally) mind-altering chemicals into her body. Sure, it’s not the nicest superhero origin story, but I guess there’s only so many radioactive spiders crawling around.

While all of this is going on, the film intercuts the action with scenes of Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman) giving a TED talk style lecture on the potential of the human brain. Norman believes that living cells, and therefore anything made of living cells, are driven by the desire to be immortal, so they always do one of two things; flee from danger when an environment is bad, or procreate when an environment is favorable. Humans are slaves to these instincts, he claims, because they only use 10% of their brain capacity. Now, either Freeman didn’t study his lines for these scenes or he just couldn’t believe some of the things he was saying, because he visibly keeps halting and then looking down at his script to see what to say next. It’s kind of funny.

The professor then goes on to ask the audience to imagine the possibilities if someone could find a way to use 20% or more of their brain capacity. Just think of the amazing powers such a being would develop; telepathy, mind control, telekinesis, and more. The movie then immediately flashes back to Lucy, and just in case anyone missed the obvious, flashes a big 20% on the screen to let us know that Lucy has indeed hit that benchmark. It’s kind of funny.

At this point, we should probably go ahead and address the elephant in the room. Yes, Besson obviously missed the episode of

Mythbusters where they debunked the urban legend that humans only use 10% of their brain capacity. He also seems to have missed all of the scientific websites and magazine articles which do the same. But who cares? In movies you can blow up a whole Sharknado with items found in your garage and humans only use 10% of their brain until they find a way to use more, at which point they develop godlike superpowers. Just roll with it. It can be kind of funny.

Or it would have been if Besson and crew had actually realized they were making a completely illogical and silly superhero movie. Instead, they seemed to have thought they were making a film with something of importance to say. You see, along with her superpowers, Lucy is also gaining hidden insight into how the universe actually works, and at only 20% brain capacity, she isn’t quite sure what to do with all that knowledge. So, after escaping her captors, Lucy spends five minutes absorbing a good chunk of the Internet and discovers Norman and his theories. She decides to contact him for advice.

As her growing brain capacity (somewhere around 30% now the onscreen countdown informs us) will kill her within 24 hours (it just will, okay, quit worrying about how these things work), Norman reminds Lucy about the driving force behind cells. This inspires Lucy to concoct a plan. She will first track down and ingest the remaining drug packets which Mr. Jang has placed in the stomachs of three other unfortunate souls, and after this causes her brain capacity to reach 100%, she will find a way to pass on her knowledge to the rest of humanity. The only glitch in the plan is that Jang wants the drugs back and is in hot pursuit with his gang of killers.

And this is where the movie starts to fall completely apart. Up until this point, the film has been dumb, but in an enjoyable, funny kind of way. Unfortunately, it develops a two-fold problem. One is that Lucy becomes near omnipotent by the middle of the film, basically making her untouchable by her enemies, even Oldboy. This fundamentally renders all of the action set pieces which follow, no matter how talented Besson is at filming them, irrelevant. What’s that, you say? God is in a high speed car chase? No worries, I’m pretty sure he (or she in this case) will make it out okay.

The other problem is Lucy’s universe changing insights. Rather than keep them a unknown quantity, a MacGuffin to keep the story moving along, the script has Lucy actually revealing them to Norman and his colleagues. And, frankly, they don’t make a lot of sense. The stuff Johansson has to say with a straight face (proving once again she really can act) is a nearly incomprehensible mish-mash of transhumanism, Scientology, and straight up jibber jabber. All I’m saying is that if you’ve got a new goddess on the block and the best she can come up with is half-baked gnostic platitudes like “one and one doesn’t really equal two,” maybe it would have been better if she had just remained silent.

Say what you want to about the Christian understanding of God, but at least he can add. Plus, he doesn’t expect us to have to find some secret path to unlocking our brain’s hidden potential. Between what can be gleaned from the natural order and what has been revealed, just about any average schmoe can now wander into their local corner church and find what they need to master their basic instincts. Feel trapped by your cells’ programming to do nothing but seek out your own self interest? Then do what Jesus said to and go give some food to a hungry person or pass along clothing to somebody naked. There, you’ve transcended your material limitations. Problem solved.

Okay, okay, so I’m being pretty hard on Besson and his movie. Lucy isn’t a total wash. Johansson manages to save a lot of her scenes through sheer force of will, there are some nice nods to old anime (the climax really, really makes me want that live action Akira movie now), and the fleeting moments when the film abandons its pretensions and surrenders to its Sharknado-like silliness are admittedly kind of funny. But, come on, Besson has made films like La Femme Nikita, Léon: The Professional, and The Fifth Element. He’s better than this.

David Ives reviews new releases for Aleteia and spends his time exploring the intersection of low-budget/cult cinema and Catholicism at The B-Movie Catechism.

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