Quick, what does this remind you of? Lucy is a naïve American college student living in Hong Kong, emotionally fragile and seemingly none too bright, who has made the wrong sort of boyfriend, the sort who “innocently” asks you to deliver a briefcase to some fellows who “just happen” to be some big-time Asian drug dealers. And they don’t just take the briefcase, no siree, they brutalize the poor woman before cutting her open and implanting its contents-bags filled with a new synthetic drug based on hormones secreted by pregnant women-into her stomach, with the goal of using her as an unwilling drug mule into the United States. Another beating ruptures one of the bags, causing the drugs to leak and get absorbed into her system. The next time the creeps come to interrogate her, they’re face-to-face with a new woman, as the drugs have not only caused Lucy to undergo a radical personality change, but to enhance everyone of her physical abilities. After giving her captors back what they gave her (and then some) the now intellectually enhanced, emotionally as well as physically resilient Lucy goes on a mission to stop the remaining smugglers and gain the rest of the drug, which she needs to survive and to achieve her full potential. To learn how to do that, she also searches for Dr. Samuel Norman, a neurobiologist (I think; the film never makes his specialty clear) to help understand her powers, which include continually augmenting cognitive and sensory powers and the ability to change her hair and eye color to disguise herself, as well as to adapt herself to any confrontational situation she finds herself in.
Longtime readers of this blog will no doubt have already surmised that yes, what we have here is yet another adaptation of Stanley Weinbaum’s “The Adaptive Ultimate”, albeit uncredited and possibly accidental (far be it for me to fall victim to the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy that too many other fans succumb to). Alas, Luc Besson’s film is not only not an improvement on the Weinbaum story, it’s not an improvement on the TV adaptations either, and a reminder, as if it is needed, that no matter how slick the production values or eye-boggling the visuals may be, it doesn’t matter if one doesn’t have a decent script. If anything, it’s a textbook example of everything that has gone wrong with SF cinema since the advent of Star Wars, and it’s sad to see so much fine talent and promising ideas squandered on a such an unsatisfying final product. The filmmaker’s consensus over the past thirty years has apparently been that science fiction can only be smuggled into cinemas under the guise of the action film, and that the more special effects, the better. Maybe they are right; it is after all, not only what sells best to the general public, but attracts the attention of fanboys and -girls who eat this sort of product up uncritically without realizing that it has been done before, and better, not just by an older generation of filmmakers but by the writers of classic science fiction stories that have been cannibalized for inspiration.
Nearly every other review of Lucy has already mentioned that the notion that we only use five or ten percent of our brain that the movie uses as a story springboard and is repeatedly hammered home in the film’s trailer is a complete myth (although the other glaring scientific errors, particularly the film’s misreading of the process of evolution as teleological instead of mechanistic, have managed to avoid their scrutiny). Nonetheless, it’s quite an appropriate myth for this film to rely on, for here is a prime example of a movie that fails completely to utilize potentially intelligent and thought-provoking material to their full capacity. In addition to the Weinbaum story, science fiction fans will also be reminded of Greg Bear’s Blood Music (information theory and biological computation plays an important role late in the film) and the works of Olaf Stapledon, especially towards the end.. and I emphasize, towards the end. When Lucy is at the point of achieving her full biological potential and explains what she now knows and understands with her enhanced perceptual and cognitive abilities, it’s a potentially fascinating but all-too brief moment, and we’re too numbed by the hour and a half of violence and banality that has preceded it to really care. Throughout the film I wanted to know, what is this character really undergoing? What does it really feel like to undergo this radical process of neurological and physiological transformation? Apart from a phone conversation Lucy has with her mother in which she starts telling her about all the memories that are flooding back to her since her birth, down to the last detail, we frustratingly remain distant from this potentially intriguing character, and cannot get involved with either her or her situation. In its place we get plenty of action and fight scenes that are extremely bloody and brutal but never exciting or suspenseful; because Lucy becomes seemingly invincible so early on in the movie, the outcome of every such scene is never in doubt. In fact, our purported heroine winds up being so cold-blooded and indiscriminate in her killings that it becomes difficult to generate any sympathy for her at all.
The performances from the leads don’t help, which is rather shocking considering how reliable these actors usually are. Scarlett Johansson has become something of a regular in science fiction cinema of late, and although I did not see either Her or Under the Skin, I am told she was excellent in both. Unfortunately, this is one of the very few weak performances I’ve seen from her. Although exuding confidence, Johansson in unconvincing in her attempts to convey the emotional and psychological metamorphosis that she is supposed to be undergoing, and fails to generate much sympathy for her plight. I had mentioned earlier in my review of the Science Fiction Theater adaptation of “The Adaptive Ultimate” that one of the strengths of that episode was the excellent performance of Joan Vohs, who despite the great physical and personality changes her character underwent nonetheless convinced us completely she was still the same person. Johansson, on the other hand, seems to transform into a completely different person than the one we initially see at the beginning of the film, with too abrupt a transition and no shadings present. One moment she’s an ordinary, quite dull woman, make-up free and blubbering with fear, shedding more tears than the audience for The Fault in Our Stars in the neighboring auditorium, the next moment she has metamorphosed into the kick-ass-but-gorgeous chick that has become such a genre cliché, distinguished from the rest of the pack by her Buster Keaton-style stony-faced look and hushed-tone delivery that’s apparently supposed to convey higher intelligence. Johansson’s Lucy remains a cipher, someone who we are frustratingly incapable of connecting with, possibly because the actress herself failed to connect with the character. Morgan Freeman meanwhile seems weary as Dr. Norman, as if he is tired of being continually handed these Authoritative Voices of Authentic Wisdom parts that seem Xeroxed specifically for him. And he probably is; years before he achieved global stardom and acclaim, he was already complaining that he was being handed too many “good guy” parts despite his villainous turn in Street Smart (and his superb performance as a vile sadistic pimp in that sleeper is absolutely blood-chilling). The other performances are literally disposable, just there to move the plot along or to add to the film’s body count.
While the actors are more underwhelming than they usually are, the direction by Luc Besson is, as almost always is the case with him, way overdone. I did enjoy his The Fifth Element, which was a Nouvelle Vague French science fiction comic come to life; it may have been a mess, but it was an imaginative and entertaining one, and Besson’s style was appropriate to that particular brand of speculative fiction. With a premise such as that featured in Lucy, one expects a more subtle and thoughtful handling of the material than what Besson is known for; it’s bad enough to see it get dumbed down into a typical action film, but Besson also seemingly tries to compensate for the loss of intelligent material by hammering away all remaining subtlety in what remains. I’m reminded of Charly, the film adaptation of Daniel Keyes’ classic novel Flowers for Algernon, in which both the immensely touching original story and Cliff Robertson’s beautifully conceived performance are almost buried by wrong-headed, stylistically faddish directorial impositions. Besson over-directs everything, not just the numerous action scenes (the best being a car chase in the middle of Paris) but the more quiet scenes that are supposed to help develop the characters or give us a chance to contemplate the film’s ideas. There are warning signs early on in Lucy’s opening conversation with her boyfriend that things are going to be rough sledding: when he remarks that Lucy was also the name of the first woman, there’s a quick cut to a shot of an Australopithecus woman. When he hands her the drugs, the scene is intercut with a shot of a white lab rat approaching some cheese in a trap. Is your head hurting from the sledgehammer blows yet? Wait until Freeman delivers his lecture. His ruminations on evolution are accompanied by swiftly-edited nature montages in the style of Koyannisqatsi, with one sequence of animal-copulation garnering much unintentional chuckles from the audience. When Besson needs to show us that Lucy can now read Chinese, he doesn’t merely superimpose English letters over Chinese words, or even just have her simply glance and let us read Johansson’s expression so that we simply and subtly now know that she now understands their meaning. No the Chinese letters have to fly off the screen, and morph into English, because we’re too stupid to get it otherwise. It’s somewhat more effective when Lucy is able to witness the processes of chlorophyll action in a nearby tree or when she hugs her friend, and immediately diagnoses a heretofore undetected malady, but when she’s able to see the electromagnetic lines of force emanating from cellphones, perceiving each individual waveband in a different color, it looks like a glossy commercial (“Can You See Me Now?”), and it’s utterly ludicrous when she’s able to reach out and physically touch them (note: “lines of force” are a mathematical object, not something tangible).
90% of all science fiction is crud, or so said Theodore Sturgeon all those years ago. That’s another percentage estimate which is doubtful; movies like Lucy suggest it’s even higher.