If the last year in movies has taught us anything, it’s that Scarlett Johansson is sensational at playing non-humans. After starring, using only her voice, as Joaquin Phoenix’s sexy cellphone lover in Her, and as a man-eating alien without a conscience in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, she now brings it all together in Luc Besson’s ridiculous, incoherent but pretty entertaining Lucy, as a hard-partying young American exchange student in Taiwan who, thanks to a drug overdose, becomes God. Or what He would be like if He were a hot chick on drugs with a gun.
After Lucy, unwillingly, gets a kilo of illegal smart drug surgically implanted in her gut by Chinese gangsters, the bag accidentally bursts open. Instead of killing her, it allows her to use 100 per cent of her brain power, rather than the 10 per cent we mortals supposedly employ.
The belief is inaccurate, but who’s counting? To really enjoy Lucy, the latest logic-free thriller from Besson, the French maestro of mayhem, you should probably use only one or two per cent of your brain, the parts that enjoy flashing lights, loud noises, and the animal-attack videos that keep popping up during the movie.
Lucy begins with brief, noble nod to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 and its dawn-of-humanity scene, before we jump to contemporary Taipei where Lucy, instead of studying, has been hanging with a sleazy Danish dude (Pilou Asbæk) who turns out to be a low-level drug runner. Consequently, Lucy gets captured by Korean gangsters led by Mr. Jang (the great, wearily malevolent Choi Min-Sik, of Oldboy fame). The gang, with a snooty English accomplice, plans to smuggle bags of the drug, a synthetic form of a pregnancy hormone called CPH4, in the stomachs of several unwilling European travellers, and are sending them back home under duress to make the deliveries.
The diabolical Korean criminals are apparently determined to make Europeans slightly smarter, whether they want it or not.When Lucy’s bag breaks, thanks to a kick in the stomach from a bad guy, she is able to access progressively more of her smart parts, with her improvement shown onscreen in roughly 10-minute intervals: 20 per cent, 30 per cent and so on. Fortunately, we know exactly what this development means, because the progress of her cranial development is cross-cut with a lecture on exactly that subject by the Paris-based scientist Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman).
So, what’s it like to be so smart? First, Lucy becomes an expert killer who can take out entire gangs of thugs with pinpoint shots. She can endure surgery without an anesthetic, learn languages instantly, and absorb thousands of pages of information at a glance. By the time she gets closer to 100 per cent, it’s as though she is watching all the YouTube videos you’ve ever seen, running really quickly on two laptops at the same time. Also, she can suspend gravity, travel in time to the Old West or the age of the dinosaurs, and compel an airline attendant to bring champagne, even when the plane is just about to land.
Omnipotence rocks, though there’s a catch. As Lucy’s body and mind are rapidly evolving, her individual cells want to fall off on their own – bits of her start flying away in the airplane washroom – and she knows she has about 24 hours to stay alive, which makes this one of those time-ticking movies like Crank or Speed. Twelve of those precious hours are devoted to flying from Taipei to Paris, where Professor Norman lives and where the other drug mules are converging.
Along with Professor Norman and his genius scientist friends (you can tell they’re in the genius club because they all wear the same white lab coat), Lucy teams up with a cynical French policeman (Egyptian actor Amr Waked) to bring down her enemies. And to pass on her wisdom for the future benefit of the human race on a handy USB key. At one point, when the cop asks the apparently invincible Lucy what she could possibly need him for, she gives him a big kiss. “To remind me,” she says, thinking of her randy careless youth, which took place earlier that day.
Lucy, you may have twigged, is named after our 3.2-million-year-old hominid ancestor.
She might also be seen as a stand in for Luc (as in Besson), and the movie shows indications of being his grand statement on life, the cosmos and whatever. At times, Lucy the movie veers precariously close to the New Age preciousness of such films as Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life or Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain. Between shooting sprees and high-speed car chases, the character of Lucy occasionally ponders the relationship between time and mathematics, evolution and emotions, while Besson illustrates with footage of wild animals, dividing cells, atomic bombs and time-lapse traffic.
Given what she’s working with, Johansson does an amazing job of providing a centre to all these fevered montages and half-cooked ideas. She does more real acting in the early scenes – with her frightened tears and her punk resistance to the gangster. Later, when she becomes a brainiac, she gets more physical swagger but behaves more like a robot, speaking in affectless monotone while moving with high-speed efficiency.
Throughout, though, Johannson has moments when she slips around the façade with a smirk or a melting gaze, that keep this shiny, silly film feeling comic and human. It's a funny thing how smart and stupid often seem so similarly mechanical in movies, but thanks to Johansson’s performance, we have a fizzy cocktail of a film that blends both ingredients.