Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
July 2014


If I only had a brain

Tailor-made for short attention spans, 'Lucy' is energetic, lovely, empty cosmic nonsense

Universal Pictures
Director: Luc Besson
Screenplay: Luc Besson
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Min-sik Choi, Amr Waked, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Analeigh Tipton and Pilou Asbæk
Rated R / 1 hour, 29 minutes
July 25, 2014
(out of four)

There's dumb, and there's the kind of dumb that knows it's dumb, and I'm pretty sure Luc Besson's Lucy is the latter. I'll give it credit for that - the knowing, that is - but I'm not sure if, once we wade through all the nonsense, there's really much of a movie here at all. Just a bunch of over-emphasized, sophomoric ideas hiding amidst a heavy dose of visual flair, a sexy movie star, a wise narrator, and lots and lots of stock footage.

This feels like a movie made by a college student who's just tried cocaine for the first time. Images flash by, shifting restlessly from one motif to another. The editing is rapid-fire. There's an ecstatic, jittery nervousness to the storytelling, which hops over every moment that might slow the film down and keeps things moving at a consistent high. I've heard Lucy praised for its cinematic energy, and I suppose that's fair enough; but it's a dead, desperate energy, more intent on distracting than engaging us. This movie is one big, 90-minute Shiny Thing. Singling it out for its visual energy would be like doing the same for a laser light show.

But back to its dumbness. The film's premise is built on the old "we only use 10 percent of our brain" myth, an idea that Besson curiously elaborates upon via an extended lecture from (who else?) Morgan Freeman, who plays Professor Samuel Norman, a renowned brain researcher. Norman goes through the step-by-step process of what would presumably be possible if humans gained more and more access to their brains. Coincidentally, one woman is about to prove his theories correct. Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) quite unwittingly becomes a mule for an international drug cartel pushing a brand new, very potent drug called CPH4, supposedly a synthetic version of a molecule that develops in humans in small quantities in utero. But the package of blue crystals that's been sewn inside her rips open, the drug seeps into her bloodstream, her brain capacity begins to evolve rapidly, and the whole thing ends up playing out like a less somber, more bonkers version of Transcendence.

The problem with Lucy is not with the premise itself - which has been used in plenty of movies before, gloriously in Defending Your Life; dreadfully in, say, Limitless - but in the way it never really delivers on the potential that premise offers. It's a perfectly good idea as fantasy. But Besson seems to sidestep all the things that are interesting about it in exchange for an explosion of stream-of-consciousness, existential imagery, often even going so far as to set up setpieces that never actually materialize.

Freeman's early narration suggests a step-by-step process, but Besson hardly gives us any of the steps at all. Instead, we see Lucy downloading a bunch of information from the Internet, tracking down her fellow drug mules so she can get her hands on the rest of the CPH4, contacting Professor Norman for research purposes ... and that's basically it. Title cards continually pop up informing us what level of brain capacity she's reached (29%! 45%! 90%!); the higher she gets, the more she can control. Her body, other people's bodies, machinery, electricity, time and space ...

But there's an absence of ideas within the central idea. Besson provides the bullet points of a screenplay instead of an actual screenplay. Things get cosmic in the film's daring third act - which simultaneously calls to mind 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Fountain and The Matrix - but there's nothing in the film to support the conceits the film arrives at. Johansson has a big, dramatic closing line, but it's ultimately a meaningless one. There's no there there.

There's also a conspicuous literal-mindedness to the film's visuals and editing (consider the way it utilizes the wildlife stock footage), even when it's trying to be symbolic or philosophical; most of it just comes across as thuddingly obvious (though it's often quite lovely to look at).

What was interesting to me was not the faux-Big Ideas, but the casually globalized aesthetic of the entire narrative. It plays out almost like a hyperkinetic version of an Assayas film. It centers around an American woman, living in Taiwan with a Danish boyfriend, crossing paths with a Korean drug lord (Oldboy's Min-sik Choi) and his British partner, and eventually working with a French-Egyptian police officer and an expatriate American scientist living in Paris.

But any interest in that cultural hodgepodge is largely lost in the service of filmmaking that suffers from ADD. And honestly, despite all of Besson's playfulness, the most visceral thing about the film is not anything visual, but Johansson's performance. Sure, it's a great movie-star role for her, but she doesn't just rely on her presence and physical assets - she gets creative with the character. Look at the way she talks throughout her transformation - you can see she's having a physical reaction to what's happening inside her. There are slight pauses in the cadences of her speech, slight tweaks in her body language. She doesn't just turn into a stone-cold machine (which would be a natural enough interpretation of the role); instead we see her going through stages of confusion and comprehension, intellectual agony and loss. She feels herself changing and isn't entirely sure how to react to it.

But the performance, as strong as it is, is just about the only thing about Lucy that demonstrates any thoughtfulness. Everything else seems impulsive and messy, the result of overactive stimuli and an underactive brain.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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