Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman & Choi Min-Sik
Directed by: Luc Besson
Distributed by: Universal Pictures
Release Date: July 2014
Running Time: 89 mins
Synopsis: When a young American in Taiwan becomes an unwilling drug mule, the high-tech narcotics accidentally get released into her system and activate latent mental and physical abilities within the human body. With these new-found powers, Lucy turns into a merciless warrior intent on getting revenge on her captors.
Written and directed by Luc Besson, Lucy is an interesting movie that fuses together two of the director’s most iconic styles: the high-octane action seen in films like Leon, The Transporter and Taken; and the science-fiction psychedelia of The Fifth Element and Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. The opening fifteen minutes are extremely tense and are reminiscent of Taken, except that Scarlett Johansson’s Lucy doesn’t have Liam Neeson sitting by the phone to help out. Besson seems in his element here as he focuses on the realism of the “drug deal gone wrong” angle, and it is this portion of the film that I enjoyed the most. Once Lucy gains her new abilities, the film makes a sudden genre shift and suddenly introduces science-fiction and philosophical theories into the mix. While this combination of genres results in an eclectic and unpredictable story, it does feel uneven at times.
Scarlett Johansson is brilliant in the titular role of Lucy, especially in the opening where she is out of her depth and overcome with fear. Once she ‘evolves’ into her new role, the change in behaviour is instant and Johansson does a fantastic job at portraying this sudden shift as Lucy loses her emotional connection to humanity and becomes increasingly logical. Her even-keel and disconnect with the events happening around her is quite eerie, and helps communicate the changes to her mind and body as much as the special effects do. Morgan Freeman gets second-billing in the credits, but ultimately has little to do apart from monologues on the key concepts behind Lucy’s powers. The one supporting character that did stand out was Choi Min-Sik’s twisted drug kingpin, Mr Pang. I loved Min-Sik in the utterly amazing Oldboy, and he brings a similar intensity to his performance here. In many ways, he reminded me the obsessive behaviour of Gary Oldman’s Norman Stansfield from Leon.
Lucy focuses on the familiar piece of scientific trivia that humans use just 10% of their brain capacity, and explores the possibilities that would occur if we were able to unlock the other 90%. This concept of artificially increasing one’s intelligence and the side-effects of such an action has been explored in other stories such as the Bradley Cooper film Limitless and the novel Flowers for Algernon, and while Lucy does briefly touch upon the ramifications and negative results, its short running time leaves little opportunity to delve into the emotional impact of this change. The biggest challenge to the film’s internal logic requires the audience suspend belief and accept that by increasing her brain capacity usage, Lucy is able to physically manipulate other people and even defy the laws of physics. It’s one of those moments where you just have to shrug your shoulders and accept the “rules” of this universe. Personally, I feel that the story would have made more sense if it had excluded the physical elements of Lucy’s evolution and focused purely on her mental abilities, plus this would have allowed the gangsters to continue to pose a risk to her plans.
While the action is surprisingly restrained compared to his other films, Besson does introduce a high-octane car chase midway through the movie that pays homage to his Taxi series. This is probably the most exhilarating part of the movie as the gunfight sequences feel somewhat perfunctory given Lucy’s ability to effortlessly eliminate threats. As the film progresses, it continues to subvert expectations and moves away from what initially seems to be a revenge thriller towards a final act that serves to baffle and confuse viewers. If you want to avoid spoilers, stop reading now, but my interpretation of the ending was that Lucy was somehow able to travel back in time and give the first Neanderthal (also called Lucy) the gift of intelligence before disappearing out of existence herself and becoming the omnipotent being that we consider to be God. This would imply that our whole existence is a result of Lucy and the events of the movie are some self-fulfilling loop to ensure her own creation. It’s a neat twist, assuming I’ve understood it correctly, but it feels tonally out of place with the action thriller the film was initially presented as.
As mentioned earlier, the film does feel like a mish-mash of Besson’s earlier works, weaving the gritty realism and philosophical sci-fi together. There are also influences from other films, notably Limitless and to a lesser extent, Akira. The juxtaposition of film styles doesn’t quite work in this instance and I think the film would have enjoyed better success as either a straight-laced revenge thriller with a hyper-intelligent female lead, or a trippy science-fiction movie about a girl who inadvertently evolves into the next stage of humankind. While I applaud Besson’s attempts to craft a new type of story and his dynamic twist ending, I felt somewhat short changed by the rest of the film after such a strong opening fifteen minutes. Perhaps I am somewhat typecasting Besson and his directorial style by expecting a similar Transporter / Taken hybrid in Lucy, but I couldn’t help feel slightly let down by the end result.
While the plot may have had some credibility issues (which is always odd to say in a sci-fi), the lead performances from both Johansson and Min-Sik were incredible, making it even more frustrating that we didn’t get a more formulaic revenge thriller focusing on these two. The conflict between the two, which was fabulously set up in the opening act, was presented as an after-thought once Lucy focused her mind on acquiring the rest of the drugs to complete her ascendance. A victim of its own eclectic style, Lucy challenges audience preconceptions and as a result, invites criticism when it turns out to be something unexpected. I have to admire Besson’s bold storytelling and his commitment to his vision, and while the plot doesn’t quite ring true at times, the ending certainly made an impact and lingered in my mind long after the credits had finished.