Luc Besson films are usually fun, action romps with plenty of violence, but light on character development. Lucy is a bit of a departure from Besson’s typical offering in that it has a more serious tone and is shrink-wrapped in science fiction. The final presentation is hit and miss, but not altogether unenjoyable. By the end, it just becomes a little too much to completely believe.
Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) is a student in China who gets mixed up with Chinese gangsters after her boyfriend of two weeks handcuffs a briefcase to her arm and forces her to deliver the package to the mysterious Mr. Jang (Min-sik Choi). Lucy discovers that the package contains a powerful new narcotic and she and three other unlucky tourists are forced to mule the drug into separate countries, using their own abdomens. Unfortunately, Lucy’s bag ruptures inside her, releasing a massive does of the drug into her system, which unexpectedly unlocks powers beyond anyone’s belief.
The danger with science fiction is focusing too much on the science and not enough on the story. It’s even worse when so much time is spent explaining the science and having it still be incredible. And this is one of the problems with Lucy; audiences are practically lectured to, without being given a real foundation on which to stand and accept what they’re being told.
The premise of the film is that humans use only 10% of their brains, but if they were able to unlock more of their brains, then they would be able to do unbelievable things akin to super powers, with new abilities being available at increasing percentages. Even with Morgan Freeman explaining this as Professor Norman, it’s tough to believe what he says humans would be able to do without explaining how it works. So when Lucy changes the color and length of her hair, audiences just have to accept that as something she can do now.
The other issue with Lucy is something that most films that have a god-like character suffer from, which is that there’s no conflict. As Professor Norman points out in his lecture early in the film, someone with access to more of their brains would be able to control every aspect of their body, which apparently includes physical appearance, metabolism and more. Even more brain access gives that person power over other people’s bodies, which includes forcing other people to sleep or even causing them to float off the ground. With all of this power, how does one stop her? If she is unstoppable, then what is the point of watching the film? This isn’t a revenge story where the protagonist loses in the beginning, with the rest of the film being the cathartic retribution. In that case, audiences want an unstoppable character. It could be argued that Lucy is an exploration in character, so the standard conflict is unnecessary, but there isn’t enough character or exploration to make this argument persuasive.
Besson does do a good job with the visual presentation, minus a few personal quibbles. Lucy employs a lot of CGI, more so than most Besson films use, but all of the effects integrate well here. Besson also effortlessly handles a car chase sequence with just the right amount of tension and vehicular destruction. He does try something new early in the film by inserting quick clips that illustrate the situational drama of the scene. So when Lucy’s boyfriend tries to convince her that dropping off the briefcase is an easy task, a very short clip of a mouse approaching a mouse trap interrupts the scene. When Lucy enters the lobby and is approached by Mr. Jang’s men who take her into custody, a short clip of cheetahs stalking a gazelle punctuates the scene. It’s an interesting technique to help guide less intelligent audiences, but overall unnecessary, since the actors should be conveying these cues already. Furthermore, these micro clips don’t show up later in the film anyway. The most visually compelling part of the film comes at the end when the scope of the story takes temporal and cosmic proportions. It’s here that Lucy succeeds on an unmitigated level as the film truly takes audiences to a time and place they have never seen or experienced.
The cast does a good enough job, but the script doesn’t give them much to work with in the way of acting range. Scarlett Johansson turns in a very good performance early in the film as the seriousness of her situation takes hold and panic sets in. But as soon as she starts her transformation, the range of her acting is necessarily reduced to one emotion because of the logic of the film. And while it can be just as difficult – if not more difficult – to be emotionless, it isn’t that compelling to watch when the character is a human being who audiences seek emotion from. Also, Morgan Freeman turns in his reliable sage advisor performance, but whatever bridgework he’s had done or whatever prosthetic he’s wearing over his teeth is impacting his speech. Hopefully this will be corrected in time since his golden voice is his biggest attraction.
Despite what seems like an overwhelmingly negative review, Lucy is not an overwhelmingly bad film. It’s actually quite good in many parts and it’s nice to see Besson tapping into the more serious side of his filmmaking tastes. The missteps the film makes and the gaps it leaves unfilled do, however, color the rest of the film, but not so much that audiences will leave theaters disgruntled.