Limitless, Transcendence and now Lucy – Hollywood’s continuing fascination with the underused brain seems especially ironic when you consider that none of these films’ screenwriters used more than 10% of theirs. Yes, I’m sorry to report that Lucy is not the mind-bending, heart-pounding thriller that the trailers had made us hope it would be. Instead, the Luc Besson-directed and scripted flick arrives as a curiously deformed mess, one filled with plainly bad ideas stretched out long past the point of admissability and a stunningly flat performance from lead Scarlett Johansson.
I’m not going to hate on the actress too much, though – after all, Johansson is just employing the same vacant stares and chatbot-esque speech patterns I loved when I saw her in Under the Skin. The fault is really with Besson’s script for hobbling her Lucy with interminable dialogue so baffling and rambling that you can almost see the actress simultaneously turning red from shame and blue from oxygen depletion. Johansson really has no choice but to retreat into herself, vacantly recite the lines as written and pray for a shiny special effect to take the audience’s eyes off her – and all things considered, that might have been a smart move on her part. It would have been much harder to watch Lucy if the actress seemed determined to bring dramatic depth to a cardboard cut-out of a character. Instead, she’s content to sit back, relax and let Besson’s sprawling ideas get the better of him.
Watching Lucy, you may feel obliging enough to do the same. Or, like me, you may cringe and wince, as if watching a train derail in slow motion. That depends on how forgiving of a person you are – but if I’d plunked down my hard-earned cash for a final product as deceptively hollow and laughably pensive as this, I surely wouldn’t be walking out with a what-are-you-gonna-do shrug.
It starts off on a somewhat promising note as well, which makes the film’s final destination all the more frustrating. Besson is a rarity among action directors in that he isn’t afraid to break with conventions and inject some visual humor into his storytelling, and he actually earns a few guffaws in Lucy‘s opening act. Alas, the director leans so much on his visual effects that he forgets to move the camera with the same urgency and style that propelled Subway and La Femme Nikita to cult status. As a result, Lucy becomes faceless and generic rather quickly, a problem exacerbated by its script’s lack of focus.
As we first meet Lucy, she’s a nice girl who falls in with the wrong guy (Pilou Asbæk) and winds up with a bag of experimental drugs sewn into her stomach by Korean smugglers. But as soon as those drugs leak, essentially giving her super-powers, the movie forgets where it’s going. At first, Lucy wants to help the appropriate authorities track down the smugglers, using her newfound abilities to outmaneuver all who stand in her way. But then, as her brain capacity grows, giving her the ability to see wi-fi signals and manipulate other people (among many other things), Lucy suddenly becomes convinced that she must share the secrets of life she has discovered. To that end, she enlists non-character Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman, possibly still in character from Transcendence – aka asleep) to listen to her prattle on about everything from human evolution to time’s immense power as an indicator of something or other.
Besson clearly aimed to make a smart, philosophical action thriller, one which genuinely wants to answer its central question of what happens when someone gains the ability to use more than 10% of their brain (if that scientific fallacy bugs you right off the bat, just go see Magic in the Moonlight). However, his script doesn’t provide anything other than faux-intellectual one-liners and a misplaced sense of smug superiority – as if Lucy is convinced that it’s actually onto something, even as it becomes loudly bizarre and ludicrous. Quickly, Besson’s quest to wrinkle our brains with vaguely scientific gibberish overtakes the main narrative, and Lucy becomes an unfeeling, unthinking vessel for his slapdash reveries.
Perhaps I’m meant to admire Lucy for blazing its own wacky trail and attempting to turn an action pic into something more cerebral. But the effect as Besson tries to bluff his way to greater meaning is more obnoxious than enlightening. The director just doesn’t give up, huffing and puffing away with a mad-dog determination until the film’s grand finale arrives, so overwrought, visually turgid and downright loony (like a blend of 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Tree of Life and Crank – on acid) that I questioned whether even he remembered his original intentions.
Lucy is a movie so weighed down by its big ideas (and its big budget, being EuropaCorp’s priciest venture to date) that it neglects to be either fun, exciting or smart. I expected more from Besson, and from Johansson, than this overly serious and scattered actioner with delusions of grandeur, one which must have fully understood its own silliness but never raised a finger to course correct. In the end, even though it feels oddly like exactly the kind of movie Besson wanted to make, Lucy disappears much further down its own weird rabbit hole than I wanted to follow.
A dumb venture made even dumber by its delusions of intelligence, Lucy starts off as harmless fun but eventually disappears up its own backside, taking every ounce of entertainment value with it.