Lucy asserts itself from the start. Cells form and apes evolve, immediately confirming its ambitious intentions. Luc Besson, of The Fifth Element and Leon, boldly throws the titular character into a situation she, and we, barely understand.
Scarlett Johansson has supported the Avengers, and notably, this year she was second-billing in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Lucy becomes her first leading film as a sci-fi, action heroine, complementing her indie work with Spike Jonze in Her and Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin. Lucy is a crazy type of fun. It’s a film with a loopy edge that tries to profoundly state the meaning of life within its ridiculous premise – and we hold on tightly to enjoy the ride.
In Taiwan, Lucy (Johansson) is a shot-drinking, club-dancing, student, inadvertently pulled into a relationship with Bono-shades wearing Richard (Pilou Asbæk). He forces her to deliver a briefcase, without the knowledge of its contents. Moments later, Taiwanese gangsters kidnap her and force her to carry drugs by surgically implanting these underneath her skin. Lucy’s trials are intercut by a lecture delivered, in grand tone, by Morgan Freeman. He explains the teeny amount of brain power we pesky humans use. Barely 10%, apparently, unlike dolphins who use sonar power by using 20% of theirs. Suffice to say, the drugs Lucy carries seeps into her system and she increases her brain power. Akin to The Bourne Identity, she has to grapple with the significant skills she has acquired in a short space of time. Gangsters pursue her, less-fearsome cops seek to apprehend her and the knowledge she possesses has to be stored for future generations.
Considering her brain can control “magnetic fields” and her hair changes colour at will (is hair-control part of the brain?), she possesses powers seen earlier this year in X-Men: Days of Future Past. Even Morgan Freeman’s lecture echoes the opening monologue in X-Men. Evolution as revolution or mutation, it seems to make the same point about our need (or our challenges) to adapt. Whereas the comic-hero team subtly comments on homophobia and racism, Lucy is far more on-the-nose. There is a messianic figure in Lucy. Her attitude is openly anti-capitalist and almost Buddhist in her sense of place in the world. Our existence is nothing without time, we’re told. So bold in its stance, Lucy draws inspiration from Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, or even Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, as she witnesses the birth of humanity, from a comfortable office chair.
You’d be lucky to observe these magisterial moments from a comfy chair too, in an IMAX cinema. The small time-frame of the film ensures that it snaps along with assured pace. The plane-hopping and unknowable extent of her powers creates a thrilling tension. When the drugs first kick-in, it is an awkward moment as, Exorcist-like, her body contorts and twists as she is flung across the room. It’s difficult to stifle a laugh when everything is expected to be taken so seriously.
Gang-leader Mr Jang (Cho Min-sik) and his Korean clan all speak their own language. Lucy even requires an interpreter initially when pleading for her life (we need the translation too as it plays without subtitles). As Lucy gains her powers, she understands the symbols and language better. The main drive of the film is a desperate attempt at sharing knowledge. It’s a clever play on us as English-language cinema viewers. You haven’t learnt a second language? Maybe, French-filmmaker Luc Besson is making a point. We’re told that “knowledge does not create chaos, ignorance does”. Am I ignorant? Am I worthy of Lucy’s “sacrifice”?
Lucy is bonkers, but it’s carries an air of confidence in its defiant tone. Ambition can often lack in summer releases, but not here. Lucy may veer from pseudo-serious intelligent discussion to ludicrous memory-recall of breast-feeding, but it doesn’t shy away from some electronica Matrix-like gun-fights. It doesn’t get the balance right, but Lucy can’t be faulted for trying. It’s strangely sincere, preposterous and equally bat-shit crazy. Lucy is a refreshing piece of the summer pie, and a welcome change to the formulaic, sequel-driven films that dominate the cinema screens at this time of year.
This post was originally written for Flickering Myth in August 2014