I don’t have terribly high expectations of writer/director Luc Besson (The Fifth Element, The Professional). He’s a stylish director capable of delivering slick action scenes, but his movies are always kind of undercooked, plot-wise. The Professional stands out as a movie that still hangs together today, though it does retain its share of weirdness, but generally, Luc Besson is a messy director. So it’s not a surprise that his latest, a techno-thriller starring Scarlett Johansson as the titular Lucy, is a messy movie. What is surprising is how very dumb Lucy is.
I associate a lot of Besson’s messiness with the Having Of Ideas. The Messenger: Joan of Arc is messy because Besson wanted to both tell us a rousing adventure story, but also cram in a lot about politics and women’s rights, and the two impulses never quite synched up. The Fifth Element is trying to say something, I think, but damn if I’ve ever been able to figure it out. And Lucy suffers a similar fate—there is a solid premise tucked away in there somewhere, but it’s dragged down by hooey science and lazy storytelling gimmicks.
Lucy is about a young woman, Lucy (Scarlett Johansson), who gets sucked into a drug trafficking scheme and ends up with a bag of a new drug rupturing in her stomach and it gives her superpowers. She can change her appearance at will, control people and objects with her mind, and influence time. The drug is synthetic “CPH-4”, the chemical that pregnant women give to their babies in order for the fetus to be able to grow bones. I’m still not sure how a hormone that controls bone growth results in giving a fully grown adult telekinesis, ESP, and makes her a mesomorph and a time lord, but yet does not convey super-strength, but this is just the tip of the iceberg of Lucy’s hooey science.
The movie is built on the notion that people only use 10% of their brains—patently false—and that by ingesting CPH-4 in great quantities, Lucy is accessing more and more of her brain, giving her all these amazing powers. It starts with a falsehood, and then none of the hooey Morgan Freeman’s scientist character or Lucy herself spouts throughout the movie ever makes any sense. It’s like Besson heard the “10% myth”, watched a documentary on evolution, had the thought that time is what really matters, and then decided to make a movie without fact-checking any of it.
But what’s worse are the gimmicks. Not only does Besson get lazy with his science, he’s lazy with his narrative, too. Early in the movie when Lucy is essentially kidnapped and forced into a drug ring, the scene intercuts with footage of a cheetah running down a baby gazelle. IF IT’S NOT CLEAR ENOUGH, GAZELLE LUCY IS BEING FORCED INTO SOMETHING BAD BY THE CHEETAH PEOPLE. It’s an obnoxious and unnecessary bit of editing that blatantly tells us Besson doesn’t trust his audience to understand context in a very simple scene. Worse—Johansson is actually very effective as the frightened, desperate Lucy, so the intercutting undercuts her strong performance in the scene. It’s insulting to us and her.
Still—Besson knows how to make an action movie. Lucy has moments of genuine tension and a series of well-shot, well-made action sequences. There’s a great car chase, and though Lucy never engages in any combat herself, there are a couple tight confrontations between her and the gang after her. The movie isn’t a total loss, it’s just incredibly annoying to be talked down to about HOOEY SCIENCE. With a little legwork on the fact-checking, Lucy could have been an inventive and exciting piece of science-fiction. As is, however, it’s a dumb action movie with a decent performance from Scarlett Johansson, except she’s recently done much, much better sci-fi in Her and Under The Skin. So skip Lucy and rent Her or Under the Skin.