2014 was the Year of Scarlett Johansson. She had three movies that were all hits in their own ways. Her biggest hit was Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which was critically acclaimed and one of the top ten highest-grossing movies of the year. On the other end of the spectrum, she had Under the Skin, a strange little indie sci-fi flick that earned her some pretty great reviews for her performance as an alien in human skin.
And somewhere in between these two, she also made a movie called Lucy, a modestly-budgeted sci-fi action thriller, and it is this film which I will be taking a look at today. It was a financial hit, making its $40 million budget back several times over, but was polarizing among critics and audiences.
Lucy was written and directed by Luc Besson, a French filmmaker who hasn’t been directing a whole lot lately, but if his name sounds familiar it’s probably because he’s been busy producing and co-writing films in the Taken and Transporter series, as well as movies like Lockout and From Paris With Love.
According to Besson, the script for Lucy took 9 years to write, so I guess you could call the movie a labor of love for him. In the film, Scarlett Johansson plays Lucy, a young woman living in Taiwan. In the film’s opening scene, she is arguing with her boyfriend Richard. He works as a courier, delivering things to the mysterious Mr. Jang. Richard is trying to convince Lucy to deliver his latest package, a silver briefcase.
Lucy isn’t stupid, and she refuses to do it until Richard handcuffs the briefcase to her wrist. He doesn’t have the key to get it off her, so she has no choice but to deliver it. She enters Mr. Jang’s building while Richard watches from the street, and while she is waiting for Mr. Jang to come down and take possession of the briefcase, she sees Richard be shot dead outside. Some mean-looking dudes in dark suits come down the elevator and take Lucy, now terrified, upstairs to meet Mr. Jang.
When we meet Mr. Jang, he is stepping over a couple of dead bodies, and his face and hands are spattered with blood. Our friend Lucy is officially having a very bad day. He gives her the combination for the briefcase, and we see that it contains three packets filled with blue powder. Mr. Jang offers Lucy a job. She doesn’t want it (understandably) and is knocked out.
When she wakes up, she has a scar on her stomach. Mr. Jang and his associates have sewn one of the packets into her abdomen and are going to use her and a couple other guys as drug mules.
Later on, a couple of her guards come on to her. She resists them, and is viciously kicked in the stomach. It’s tough to watch this very attractive young woman be brutally and repeatedly kicked in the gut, but I guess you could call it the Kick of Destiny, because it breaks open the bag of powder sewn into her stomach and releases the drug into her system.
From there, Lucy begins to become something not quite human.
All right, now I need to back up a little. I’ve explained the basic setup for the plot and described a few of the early scenes, but I’ve left out some details that are pretty important. In the opening scene, where Lucy is arguing with Richard, their conversation is intercut with footage of a cheetah stalking and running down a gazelle (or maybe it’s an antelope, I’m not really familiar with African wildlife). This is of course symbolic, with Richard as the cheetah, and Lucy as the unwitting gazelle/antelope.
And after the first scene with Mr. Jang, Besson cuts to a professor (played by Morgan Freeman, because everyone takes everything he says seriously no matter how ridiculous it might be) giving a lecture on brain capacity. And this seems to be the biggest point of contention about this film.
We’ve all probably heard at some point that humans only use 10% of their brain’s capacity. As far as I have been able to find out, this is purely a myth, but Besson’s film takes this idea, lights itself on fire, and scores a flaming touchdown against a team composed entirely of robot ninjas.
What I’m saying is that the movie takes the idea and runs with it. Like, really RUNS with it, and if you’re not down with it, well, that’s just too bad.
Once the drug is released into her system, Lucy starts to unlock more and more of her brain’s capacity, and gains more and more POWER. Remember Limitless, the 2011 Bradley Cooper movie where he takes a drug that makes him super-smart? Lucy is kind of like that, but in addition to becoming super-smart, Lucy also gains fricking superpowers.
She gains telepathic and telekinetic abilities and is able to remember everything that has ever happened to her, including when she was a baby. She feels no pain and all of her emotions begin to fade. She becomes a superhuman, and all of the henchmen Mr. Jang sends after her are completely helpless against her. No one can touch her.
She ends up contacting the professor played by Morgan Freeman to help figure out what is happening to her, and enlists a French police captain named Del Rio to help round up Mr. Jang’s other drug mules.
Throughout all of this, Lucy becomes more and more emotionless and less able to identify with anything human. When Captain Del Rio asks her why she keeps him around, and quite reasonably points out that there isn’t really anything he can do for her that she can’t do for herself much more efficiently, she looks at him strangely for a second and says, “As a reminder.” She keeps him around to remind her of what it’s like to be human and to have human emotions, as she becomes more powerful she also becomes more disconnected.
I really like this idea, it reminds me a lot of Dr. Manhattan from Watchmen (remember the big blue naked guy?), who has the power to save mankind from itself but doesn’t want to because he has grown so powerful that he can’t identify with them anymore.
It’s a great way to keep the movie interesting and to keep us caring about Lucy, and it prevents her from being turned into a boring automaton. There’s not really any physical threat to Lucy once she becomes more powerful, so most of the film’s drama comes from wondering what will happen to her.
And Johansson nails it. She just absolutely nails every stage of Lucy’s superhuman transformation, and it’s impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. Her demeanor and her body language and the way she talks change completely as the movie progresses, and the character of Lucy at the beginning of the movie is completely different from her character at the end of the movie, but I found it to be a fun journey, thanks in large part to the strength of Johansson’s performance (and I’m not just saying that because I’m in love with Scarlett Johansson, I mean come on, who isn’t?). Luc Besson has always had a thing for strong female characters, and Johansson’s Lucy is no exception.
And as for the whole 10% brain capacity thing…it really didn’t bother me. It seems like a lot of people were annoyed that the movie takes the idea that people only use 10% of their brain’s capacity and treats it as fact, when in reality it’s all purely theoretical at best. I can understand how that would bother scientifically-minded people, but never having been very science-y myself I can honestly say that it didn’t bother me a bit. I quite enjoyed the movie, it’s just so weird that to be honest, I kind of loved it for just how bizarre it is.
The tone of the movie is kind of all over the place, and there are some weird montages thrown in at various points, including one of animals mating and giving birth (gross), so that the first time I watched the movie I kept wondering if I was watching an action movie or some sort of weird Discovery Channel documentary.
The early scenes with Mr. Jang are chilling, and Besson is very good at building suspense, and Johansson is very convincing at looking scared out of her mind. Also effective is the actor who plays Mr. Jang. He is played by a Korean actor named Choi Min-Sik, who is very famous in his native country and is probably best to known to Western audiences for the movie Oldboy. He is incredibly menacing, made even more so by the fact that all of his dialogue is in Korean and none of his early dialogue is subtitled, so the audience is as confused and disoriented as Lucy is at the beginning of the movie.
I thoroughly enjoyed Lucy. I can understand why some people would be turned off by it but I got a kick out of it (so to speak). And the whole movie, including the end credits, runs only 90 minutes (not counting the end credits it’s only about 82 minutes) so if you do end up hating it at least you won’t have to put up with it for very long.
So by all means, check it out. It really is very different from any other movie I’ve seen recently, and that alone counts for something.