Lucy is entertaining enough, but the inevitable salvo of comments, all repeating the refrain that if one uses less than one percent of one’s brain capacity, one might enjoy it, aren’t so wide of the mark. This is easily the dumbest movie claiming to explore intelligence and consciousness since… Transcendence, actually. Which this starts to resemble at points, particularly when the screen begins to fill up with cut-price CGI gloop and nano-cellular-gubbins. I’m sure there’s a place for a movie combining action and philosophy in equal measure; I’m fairly certain it’s one directed by the Wachoswki siblings. This most certainly isn’t it, and it probably shouldn’t be a surprise that a Luc Besson opus fails to say anything insightful in its exploration of the potential the exists within us all, or that it makes a horrendous hash of discussing our ephemeral relationship with the physical world itself.
One only has to look at Besson’s screenplay and story credits over the past two decades to realise this guy has no interest in challenging anyone to think deeply about anything. A succession of mid-budget action movies, most of which have been astutely gauged to turn a tidy profit and a few (Taken) that have gone through the roof. Since he’s become a one-man mini-studio, in tandem with his diminished desire to actually direct, he’s become a lot less interesting. The ‘90s triptych of Nikita, Leon and The Fifth Element (the latter is how to have fun making a big dumb action movie with a lot of heart and a kernel of simplistic philosophy) now look like the last valiant cry of a moviemaker who fooled us into thinking he was going places. Instead we got one who doesn’t really care what he makes, or fills in at the last moment when one of his protégés drops out.
That said, I had a lot of time for Besson’s last picture. The Family wasn’t a revelation in any way, but it made me laugh, it was well cast, and the action – when it surfaced – was every bit as confident as ever. The action bit is sort of Lucy’s problem; Besson wants to indulge in a speculative treatise (perhaps that’s pushing it… ) on what would be in store for us if only we could tap into that other ninety percent of our brains we don’t use (already this has been denounced as an “unscientific” stick with which to beat the picture, though really I think such a conceit is the least of its flaws) but the only bit he’s really good at is the action, and he seems reluctant to really let himself off the leash in that regard. All the old skills are present and correct; that smooth, clear coherent staging and enervating editing. Yet it’s used to little gain. The most notable sequences come early. Later it’s time for some sub-Neo in The Matrix physics-defying shenanigans (and chains of code, and last lines that mimic the tone of his in the first of that trilogy). Further counting against him is the evidence that Besson is most certainly no sage, such that when he attempts to strike a philosophical note Lucy is mostly laughable.
There’s also a problem of basic relatability here. Besson has apparently cited his indebtedness to 2001: A Space Odyssey, which does him no favours whatsoever (given what’s on display here you expect him to summarise that masterpiece with “Yes, that Kubrick, he’s wicked cool”), and it says something about Besson’s failure to come even in the remote vicinity of its quality that he fetches up a monolith-shaped USB stick as the sum total of human knowledge. The tone of 2001 was precise, deliberate, one of cerebral inquiry and detached observance. Besson isn’t naturally a demur director, and his best films wear their passions on their sleeves. Lucy is quickly punctured by his having no one to care about, and nothing to imbue tension in the proceedings; as such, its merciful that the picture is so short.
The casting of Scarlett Johansson doesn’t help matters either. Somehow the Wachowskis hit gold with the open-faced vacuity of Keanu Reeves, positing him as a guileless messiah. That approach, of contracting someone who clearly is not a boffin, flounders here. Perhaps Besson should have asked Morgan Freeman to suck up that blue meth, then asked his stunt double to do a series of back flips. Credit where it’s due, Johansson is very good in the first twenty minutes or so, before CPH4 begins to take effect. As caught-unaware student Lucy, she is wholly persuasive emoting a palpable terror at whatever this fiendish Korean gang (those Koreans, eh?) have in mind, be it death or worse. These scenes are tense and nervy, with a fine streak of dark humour (the gang withdrawing to a safe distance while Lucy opens their potentially booby-trapped case). Besson perversely, and perhaps purposefully (he’s not just an action director, you know) does his best to dissipate this by cutting to really subtle wildlife shots of predator and prey; once you’ve seen that, you know exactly the level of depth this picture is aiming for. The whacky Frenchman.
And yet this deranged zest also, almost, works. Wheeling out everyone’s favourite walking (just about, he’s really getting on these days) gravitas Morgan Freeman to deliver a lecture on the brain’s unused expanses is such a blatant attempt to disguise sloppy writing (to make a silk cerebrum out of a sow’s noodle), it’s not true. We can’t really blame Morgan for picking up the cheque, twice in one summer with Transcendence, and at least his rent-a-sincerity momentarily veils a seminar that possesses all the integrity of a high school essay project (what happens if we use all our potential, or even more? Hmm, you don’t really have the foggiest do you Morgan?) The decision to intercut his lecture, so utterly pedestrian, with the grimness of Lucy’s encounter with Jang (Min-Sik Choi) and his goons is so perversely off it has a daffy appeal. It’s not even close to being audaciously brilliant, but it’s likably offbeat.
However, once the bag of crystallised Lu Blue that has been sewn into her abdomen seeps and Lucy (literally? – I assumed this was intended to be a Renton-esque trip, but everything that occurs later suggests otherwise) starts climbing the walls, Johansson’s grip on the performance evaporates. She inherently fails to exude anything approaching braininess, and her attempts to button it all down and do the robot are lack lustre; Besson’s as much to blame for the material he gives her, of course. While she handles the earlier emoting well, a wholly naff scene in which Lucy calls her mother undoes this good work. She speaks to her for all the world like a student taking her first Acid trip (except no student in their right mind would call their parents in such a state). Like, the colours, man (mum), and everything is one, man (mum). And I can taste the milk from when I used to suckle on your tit, mom. What? Perhaps Lucy’s mother has early onset dementia as she seems not to bat a verbal eyelid. There, dear. Perhaps you need a nice cup of tea. The scene foregrounds a lurking suspicion that, in order to be most amenable to Lucy, one should be severely baked.
Since auteur Luc hasn’t bothered to work out any of the markers of these incremental advances in brain function, from thirty to forty to fifty-percent capacity etc., Lucy’s marvellous antics all becomes much of a muchness. There’s magic wand waving up the wazoo, where anything can happen but nothing much really imaginative does, and there’s no real danger because she’s unstoppable within minutes of being loved up. Lucy uses an E.T. glowing finger to read Jang’s mind straight off the bat, then she’s making her hair change colour in the blink of an eye. So at the end it’s not so much surprising that she can transform her form in to strange mutations, or finally disappear at all, as that, with all the possibilities available, she has does so little with them (Limitless at least, by setting its sights low – too low, really – comes out with something much more coherent and much less inane). By the end Lucy is the world, she is the people, she is everywhere, but there’s zero sense of awe and nothing mind-blowing about it.
Admittedly, I liked the scene on the plane where Lucy’s cells begin striving for individual survival and she starts to tear herself apart, before sticking her nose in more drugs to calm her corporeal form down (let that be a lesson; more isn’t always less and moderation isn’t always the answer). At this point there’s a much needed – but brief –dramatic tension as she panics and doesn’t know what’s going on, combined with a suitably Altered States-esque bodily breakdown. Because Besson can’t feed the audience’s brains, he’s unable to sustain most of what occurs post-mental expansion. And he doesn’t even care. There’s no reason Lucy would leave Jang alive, except to have a villain in the third act. The overblown shootouts are immaculately staged (there’s an amusing moment as the police pile into a building while, unbeknownst to them, the Korean mob arm up in the foreground) but there’s no dramatic investment in them. Amr Waked does good work as the confidante cop, but it’s a thankless part. By this point, another perverse turn around has occurred, such that the gangster plot is tangential now to the metaphysical rumblings; unfortunately, this isn’t particularly satisfying on either side of the divide.
Besson’s spin on his premise, of what happens when we switch on, aside from the supernatural abilities that come with it, is wholly pedestrian. As such, it’s notable that the picture, for all its “anything goes” attitude, can muster little more than enlightenment or transcendence coaxing a liberating effect on our perception of time. Once it is no longer bound by time, the physical body no longer exists, so Lucy can range back and forth across the centuries and millennia… Time is a constant by which we measure our existence, and freed from that limitation we can do anything – just as long as it involves sitting in a chair and flashing across green screen landscapes. And that’s about it? Sure, Lucy meets some dinosaurs, and even gets to indulge in a bit of Grandmother Paradoxing by sparking intelligence in an unwitting ape name Lucy, but there doesn’t appear to be much else under the lid. Perhaps Besson, an avowed atheist, struggles to find more having eschewed all notions of spiritual advancement. Lucy’s development is very limited and linear, a tangible reflection of timelessness replete with CGI ape, CGI dinosaur, CGI-tentacles, and what looks a lot like CGI CGI.
I wondered occasionally if Lucy was going to show some perversely curious motivations as she grew in knowledge and understanding. Some of the discussions held had interesting germs of ideas. Why would she necessarily lose touch with her emotional and more especially empathic faculties? Such that she shoots taxi drivers and kills terminal patients with impunity? There’s an element here of divesting oneself of limiting notions of humanity, such that compassion hardly matters when you have the brain the size of the planet; was the line about the patient dying anyway an afterthought to justify the calculated machine mind Lucy? Did Besson wish to forward the idea that anyone or thing approaching the capacities of a godlike being must inevitably be morally suspect – or amorally suspect (David Icke fans will note Lucy’s lizard eyes during her transformation)? After all, Lucy would do bugger all if not for Freeman’s suggestion that knowledge should be passed on. Morgan is used to strike a positive note, then vacillates and it is left to Lucy to reassure him that ignorance brings chaos not knowledge but the idea that order should result from her actions isn’t actually actualised in Lucy, or at least not per se.
It’s almost inevitable that writers write themselves into corners when they try to broach the cosmic, which is why it’s usually better to verbalise as little as possible; if you’re dealing with symbols (2001, Altered States) you’re more likely to carry resonance. Still, credit to Besson for his lack of restraint in juggling armed gangsters with CG ape-men, wildlife footage and weird physical transformations. And doing it so concisely (any longer and it would have become wearying, as Transcendence illustrated). Lucy’s a stupid movie, with an attractive premise that eludes its writer-director. The shame of it is, Besson’s action chops are as great as ever but he only wants to flex them intermittently. That’s where his real talent lies. You’re not a thinker, Luc, you’re a bruiser.