I freely admit that I wasn’t blown away by the trailer for Luc Besson’s Scarlet Johansson-centric SF blockbuster Lucy. It seemed like a blur of an action film, with Johansson relegated to a stripped down, dumbed down version of her side-character in the Marvel films.
It struck me as lowest common denominator action with an SF background pasted on. I very nearly passed it by. But a film is a film, and an evening out to the cinema is an evening out to the cinema.
So what can Besson, the director of Leon and The Fifth Element, offer this time around?
The film follows Lucy (Johansson) living the party life in Taiwan, when she is tricked by her boyfriend into delivering a briefcase to some shady characters. One thing leads to another, and she is pressed into service as a drug mule, transporting a new drug to Europe in her body cavity. She gets hit, the bag bursts, and the drug starts to pour into her — quickly opening up access to the ‘other 90%’ of her brain.
Yes, that old chestnut. This is a film predicated on the idea that humans use only 10% of their brain. Despite this being a scientific urban legend, it doesn’t actually get in the way of the film. And I had really expected it to.
Instead what we get is a weird mash up of action film and high-concept SF. And when I say high-concept, I mean it. There are a lot of parallels with 2001: A Space Odyssey here, and they have to be deliberate. From the opening with a CGI ape drinking water, to Lucy’s journey from humanity to something more, right up until her imparting a miniature black monolith as a USB drive to Morgan Freeman’s character.
It isn’t 2001, not by a long way, but compared to other films which have more latterly tried to equal it, it gets pretty close. And you have to appreciate the attempt to marry up the personal level of Lucy’s story with the far greater scale ramifications for an entire race and evolutionary line. The film manages somehow to keep the audience in touch with both of these aspects.
But this is all about Lucy. Johansson gives an excellent performance as an ordinary everywoman, slipping away from the world. There is a scene where she calls her mother, from a Taiwanese hospital, as the remains of the drug bag are being removed from her stomach. It is a touching juxtaposition of her humanity and her trans-humanity, showing the very emotional edge that I had feared would be missing. And even when she drifts away from empathy, there are still glimmers of that connection and that vital essence.
The other characters seem to be sidelined a little. The mobster boss bent on revenge is a bit cardboard, but then he’s not the point. The French police captain who gets caught up in Lucy’s rampage across Paris surpasses the discount Jean Reno feel he is meant to be, but doesn’t really get the development time to allow him too blossom. And Morgan Freeman’s neurology professor is there mostly as exposition for the audience. Though actually, it being Freeman, the idea of his response when a stranger calls him up and says she’s moving beyond human being a shrug and “Hell, why not?” feels pretty believeable.
No, the action is incidental. This is about ideas, the idea of our potential. And alright it isn’t strictly grounded in reality, it isn’t supposed to be. There’s a bit at the beginning where her boyfriend quips that “Lucy was the name of the first woman”, which is clearly what Besson is pointing at here. Overtly, too, in one of the moments of the conclusion.
I really enjoyed this film. It knew what it wanted to do, what it wanted to be, and it set out and did it in an hour and a half. Johansson was exactly the right person to play Lucy, and what we end up with is a fascinating think-piece of concept and human drama, cunningly disguised as an action film. Despite my not expecting much from it, Besson has made a film which encompasses the whole scope of human past and human future, with a solid emotional core.
It might not be 2001, but it has a bloody good go at it.