Johannson and Intriguing Speculative Science Propel “Lucy”
What with Marvel Films dragging its feet where making a Black Widow feature is concerned, French filmmaker Luc Besson has taken matters into his own hands and given us Lucy, a star vehicle whose sole purpose is to let Scarlett Johansson shine. To that end, the movie succeeds handsomely as the actress gets to kick butt as well as create a distinctive character that actually evolves before our very eyes. However, there are unexpected delights in the film, especially during its third act as Besson dips his toe into the subject of speculative science fiction and succeeds in exploring the possibilities of unbridled mental power far better than the similarly themed Johnny Depp feature Transcendence did. It also manages to touch on the notion of alienation that Johansson embodied so effectively in her previous feature Under the Skin, creating a sense of thematic cohesion that’s intriguing.
As with most of Besson’s films, a high concept is at play where logic is expediently brushed aside. Lucy (Johansson) is an aimless party girl in Tai Pei who’s none too bright and has horrible taste in men. Her latest loser, Richard (Pilou Asbaek) happens to be a bagman for drug cartel who tricks our heroine into delivering a briefcase to the mysterious Mr. Jang (Min-sik Choi). Call it bad luck, call it fate but this ends up being a life-altering event for Lucy as, after making the delivery, she’s knocked out, cut open and has a bag of an experimental drug inserted just below her abdomen. She and three others have been turned into reluctant drug mules and given passports and planes tickets so that can each land in separate European nations where they’ll be met by Jang’s associates. However, something goes horribly wrong as Lucy is assaulted, the bag is ruptured and she begins to change in ways she can’t begin to understand as the drug is ingested in her body.
Give Besson credit – he knows how to quickly set up his premise and get down to business as all of this occurs within the film’s first twenty minutes. The rest of the movie is devoted to watching Lucy change and develop new abilities as she’s been put on the evolutionary fast track. Whereas a normal human uses 10% of their brain capacity to function, when Lucy is able to use 20% she becomes a crack shot, is impervious to pain, has total memory recall and has super-hearing. At 30%, she’s able to control the movements of others and read minds. At 40%, she…you get the idea. Besson keeps us constantly updated as to how quickly Lucy’s mind is opening up and each time she hits a new level, we’re never sure what she’ll be capable of. This structure proves to be great fun as each time she gets smarter, our curiosity is peaked, making for a constantly shifting and engaging story.
Does any of this have a basis in reality? Not being a neurosurgeon, I can’t be sure but I’d be willing to bet that even if your brain’s ability was constantly growing, I don’t think you’d be able access other people’s memories with a single touch or be able to manipulate magnetic and electrical waves so you could transmit your voice and image through computers and phones instantly. This is all beside the point as Besson’s purpose is to entertain but also pose “What if” questions that seem improbable now but in the future could become commonplace. Had you told Thomas Jefferson that one day we’d be able to fly thousands of miles in big metal tubes with wings and be able to communicate using invisible waves that travel through the air, I have a feeling he’d have been a bit of a skeptic.
Of course, speculation such as this is the bread-and-butter of good science fiction and it reaches its zenith when Besson posits that Lucy’s abilities would ultimately make her God-like. Whether what she’s capable of is possible or not is immaterial; pushing the story to the point where it makes us think about what it is to be human, why and how life exists and what connection we might have to our primitive selves is the point, leaving us with grand questions to ponder, akin to those posed in 2001: A Space Odyssey and Altered States.
Johansson does a remarkable job grounding the film early on, particularly in a scene in which Lucy, after accessing her oldest memories calls her mother to thank her for all she’s done for her. It’s a wonderfully poignant moment that helps us stay emotionally invested in the character long after she’s less than human. As you would expect, she’s ably supported by Morgan Freeman as the leading authority on the human brain, who she consults as she senses her consciousness change. These two are the anchors for Besson’s flight of fancy, as Lucy ends up being one of the more pleasant surprises in this bleak summer, proving to be far more substantial than you’d expect.