Silver Screen: Lucy ***
The notion that human beings use only ten percent of their total brain capacity is about as scientifically accurate as saying that many patients in a spinal-trauma ward have children who stepped on cracks, or that the World Trade Center was brought down with Pepsi and Pop Rocks.
That pseudo-scientific rumor is the entire basis of Luc Besson’s sci-fi action flick Lucy. It’s a high-concept movie whose concept is entirely incorrect. But it’s also so enthusiastically stupid and chock full of giddy energy that it’s difficult not to enjoy, even if doing so requires that you use significantly less than ten percent of your own brainpower.
Scarlett Johansson stars as the title character, a naïve college girl studying abroad in China whose bad taste in men puts her in a deadly situation. When her loser boyfriend fails to convince her to deliver a locked suitcase to a mystery man in a hotel lobby, he handcuffs it to her wrist to force the transaction. The briefcase turns out to contain a new synthetic drug that mimics the effects of an in-utero brain-booster. The owner of the case, gangster Jang (Min-Sik Choi, star of the original Oldboy), decides to use Lucy as one of the mules to smuggle the product out of China. But when she’s accidentally exposed to the drug, it enables her to tap into the unused parts of her brain.
The faux science is all explained by Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman), who mostly exists to deliver clunky, wildly implausible exposition. If you’re going to hire someone to pleasantly explain your movie’s cockamamie premise, Freeman is an ideal choice. The soothing tones of his sonorous voice helps the B.S. go down like butterscotch.
Besson, the writer and director of Leon and The Fifth Element, has little use for subtlety. Hence, when Lucy first delivers the briefcase to Jang’s hotel suite, the director splices in nature footage of a cheetah stalking its guileless prey. The keen-eyed viewer will note that party-girl Lucy is wearing a cheap cheetah-print jacket, predicting her eventual shift from hunted to huntress. That’s what passes for deep subtext and semiotics in Besson’s film world, where the rest of the copious stock footage underscoring the movie’s recurring (and muddled) themes of evolution and natural selection are thunderously literal: When Freeman’s professor sermonizes about volcanoes, Besson cuts to spewing magma, and when Freeman mentions sexual selection, you better bet you’re gonna see some footage that can only air on National Geographic after midnight.
It’s difficult to overstate just how overstated Lucy is, and yet, that’s part of its charm. Besson’s flair for the frenzied and garish works in his favor here. The film’s pace is so quick that you barely have time to adjust to the less-adroit leaps in logic or ponder the bizarre incongruities, like why the villain is Korean, speaks Korean, yet controls the mob in Taiwan.
The long opening scene, taking up nearly the first third of the movie, is surprisingly patient and well-executed for Besson, who seemed to lose his grip on storytelling after Leon. The director ratchets up the tension nicely, prolonging Lucy’s terror for just the right amount of time. Once the drugs kick into effect, both the movie and the character change dramatically. A running counter onscreen keeps tabs on the growing percentage of her brain Lucy is able to access, and as the number climbs her powers— and the film itself— grow increasingly outlandish.
By the end, logic has been abandoned entirely and Besson has made a mess of things, but it’s a delirious, pretty mess. Lucy clocks in at a breezy ninety minutes, which is perfect. It leaves the viewer no downtime to think about its deficiencies. Besson also brings a kind of manic glee that’s refreshing in a period when so many blockbusters have grown dour and self-serious. Lucy might not be a more competent movie than the very similar man-becomes-god thriller of earlier this year, the Johnny Depp-starring Transcendence, but it’s much more enjoyable.
Johansson has already proven her ability to play the ingénue as well as to make a surprisingly sleek, convincing superhero in the Marvel movies; here she does both and provides just enough ballast to keep the movie on course. She’s also magnificently beautiful, of course. Like everything Besson puts onscreen, she’s bright and attractive and well-lit, to be savored for a fleeting moment.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.