Here's a film that plays like it was made by a man who admired a great deal of 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Tree of Life, but found both of them to be waaaaaaaay too slow and confusing. The man in question is director Luc Besson, best known for such over-the-top outings as Leon the Professional, The Fifth Element and The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc. However, all of those films were made back in the 1990s. In more recent years, Besson's palette has broadened and his directorial style has become less interesting. The Besson-directed mob comedy The Family felt so generic that it really could have been directed by almost anyone. Lucy, on the other hand... well, it isn't a good movie, exactly, but it's unquestionably a Besson film. It's the most outlandish thing he's ever made, which is saying something when you recall that this is the guy who gave us Ruby Rhod.
I could spend three or four paragraphs attempting to explain the film's bonkers set-up, but I'll give you the simple version: after an opening sequence which plays like a gonzo variation on Ridley Scott's The Counselor (with a quick flashback to the dawn of man for good measure), a young woman named Lucy (Scarlett Johansson, The Avengers) finds herself serving as an unwilling drug mule. A package of very powerful drugs has been surgically inserted into her body, and she's supposed to deliver them on behalf of a nasty mob kingpin (Min-sik Choi, Oldboy). Alas, an accident occurs which breaks the package and allows the drugs to get into her bloodstream. The result of this is that Lucy suddenly finds herself able to access increasingly large portions of her brain, giving her superpowers of all sorts.
The details of this pseudoscientific transformation are explained in lengthy, exposition-heavy scenes featuring Morgan Freeman (The Shawshank Redemption). These scenes feel like snippets from the world's least credible TED Talk, though Freeman deserves credit for the persuasiveness of his performance. For that matter, Besson deserves credit for the persuasiveness with which he presents his ideas. The film is built on bad science and bad philosophy (“Knowledge never makes the world more chaotic... only ignorance,” says Lucy, who has clearly forgotten about that time humanity learned how to make nuclear weapons), but you find yourself swept up in its loony urgency. Like Ken Russell's Altered States, the movie enthusiastically replaces credible ideas with hyperbolic imagery.
And what imagery it is, too. Besson goes wild in this department from the first scene onward, breathlessly inserting shots of nature footage into the mix which serve as visual cues and punchlines (a mouse approaching a trap, a cheetah stalking its prey, etc.), wandering backwards and forwards in time, even giving us a brief trip through the history of life on earth. The trailers presented the film as an action movie in which Lucy faces off against a host of bad guys, but that stuff ultimately takes a backseat to Besson's hunt for the meaning of life. Plus, the term “facing off” suggests that there's actually some competition. Lucy has two modes: “all-powerful” and “even more powerful than that.” She's unstoppable from the moment her brain starts evolving, and Besson's special effects get loopier every time she accesses a new level of her brain. There are gunfights on multiple occasions (delivered with the sort of kinetic energy many of Besson's recent films have been lacking), but they're mostly present just so Besson can point out how meaningless they are in the larger scope of things (not that he's above using them to generate some ticket sales).
It must be admitted that there are a few moments – just a few, mind you – in which the film comes awfully close to transcending its fundamental dumbness. In one sequence, Lucy suddenly realizes that that she can remember every sensation that she has ever experienced over the course of her entire life, and her first instinct is to call her mother for an alarmingly intimate conversation that would have Freud on the edge of his seat. She marvels at the realization that things like physical and emotional pain can effectively cloud our ability to experience the full richness of the world, and excuses her willingness to endanger the lives of innocent people by regarding the world through a matter-of-fact biological lens: “We never really die,” she says as she causes one car crash after another. She and Dr. Manhattan would make a nice couple. And then there's that third act, in which the very notions of life, death, time and matter are called into question while bullets fly and CGI imagery goes haywire. It's pretty stupid, honestly, but so ambitious and strikingly different from every other mainstream action movie that it's hard not to be at least a little impressed, anyway.
People won't acknowledge this due to the fact that the film is so silly, but Johansson's performance as the title character is every bit as impressive as her work in Under the Skin (a movie as spare and enigmatic as this one is overflowing and exposition-heavy). Every single step of the way, she makes subtle, pitch-perfect adjustments to her performance as she moves from ordinary, frightened human to emotionless, time-traveling space goddess. It's a seriously terrific piece of work from an actress who seems increasingly willing to try just about anything. It takes a certain mad conviction to sell a part like this, and she's got it.
Besson does his level best to pull off the same feat with the whole film, but doesn't quite get there. His ambition, stylish energy and tight pacing (the film clocks in at an atypically lean 89 minutes) are commendable, but the metric ton of nonsense built into the film's premise defeats his attempts to be genuinely thought-provoking. Is it worth seeing? I can't recommend it, but I'm also glad I've seen it. Lucy is a bad movie, but it's as good as a bad movie can be.
Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 89 minutes
Release Year: 2014