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‘Lucy’ is the guiltiest of pleasures

‘Lucy’ is the guiltiest of pleasures

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Written and directed by Luc Besson
France, 2014

Sometimes, despite reason and common sense, there is no escaping the kinetic charm of a truly ridiculous creation. If it’s true that we only use 10% of our brains, you’ll need to disengage 9% of it to enjoy Lucy. But what truly wondrous sights that 1% will enjoy! The latest creation of movie-machine Luc Besson, Lucy is a dizzying visual spectacle that demands your submission. So just let reason and common sense go and enjoy the ride.

Scarlett Johansson stars as Lucy, an American girl studying abroad in Taiwan. She enjoys the simple pleasures in life, like partying with friends, getting handcuffed to shiny briefcases, and shooting native Taiwanese men for not speaking English. Her carefree life is destroyed, however, when the mysterious drug lord Mr. Jang (Choi Min-sik) stuffs a bag of iridescent purple dust into her magnificent abdomen. After a gang of hooligans stomp her senseless, the bag leaks and sends Lucy down a path of accelerated evolution. Her brain power and consciousness expand at an exponential rate, gifting her with powers normally reserved for folks living in The Matrix.

Helping her along the way is Morgan Freeman. He’s a brain scientist with some wacky ideas about what humans could do with the untapped 90% of their cerebral capacity. At this point in his career, Freeman makes no attempt to play a character other than ‘Morgan Freeman.’ He could be a LEGO scientist named Vitruvius and it would make no difference to this story. Freeman’s only purpose is to be generically helpful to Lucy, just as Choi’s only purpose is to be generically threatening to Lucy as he chases her. Motivations and subtlety aren’t really on Besson’s agenda.

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As a writer, Besson found his comfort zone years ago. His storytelling mixes bold, operatic gestures with moments of darkly-comic absurdity, with just a hint of quiet realism added to keep things somewhat grounded. Here, the strength (and weakness) of Besson’s script lies in the ingenious device of tracking Lucy’s cerebral capacity. For instance, before Lucy freaks out in an airplane bathroom, we see ‘40%’ flash on the screen. Like a trainer teaching his dog a new trick, Besson effectively conditions the audience to expect chaos when they see a percentage increase.

Sadly, this also highlights a major structural flaw with the script. Instead of stretching out the action, slowly enhancing Lucy’s abilities with each passing percentile, Besson lingers too long in the beginning, laying an unnecessary intellectual foundation for the nonsense to follow. The result is a condensed ending where Lucy speeds through the last 40% of her ascension to maximum brain power. It makes for one doozy of a final act, but shortchanges the middle of the story, where Besson seems unsure of what Lucy should be doing.

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Where Besson really shines, however, is with the brilliant visual manifestations of Lucy’s mental expansion. Trees shimmer and glow with electrical roots that snake into the ground. Radio signals become discrete units as they dangle in long strands for Lucy to manipulate like so much tinsel. We witness the de-evolution of earth, from modern gridlock to primordial ooze, in a breathtaking combination of practical and special effects. If Besson’s script is plagued by amateurish philosophizing and bad science, his visuals for Lucy are masterful, overwhelming the senses with one audacious image after another.

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While Besson gets solid performances from all his actors, the entire film hinges on Johansson, who appears in nearly every frame. She’s mostly up to the challenge, though her performance in the pre-transformation scenes is somewhat mannered. She almost resembles a puzzled dog as she cocks her head confusedly from side-to-side. Luckily, she quickly breaks into ‘bad-ass mode’, believably wielding guns that are larger than her forearms and dispatching baddies with remorseless glee.

Lucy is the guiltiest of guilty pleasures. You hate yourself for loving its over-the-top excesses and absurd ideas. Besson brilliantly taps into the Nikita mold and updates his sultry-but-deadly assassin for modern audiences. Translation: he ups the gravitas and violence while lowering the subtext and subtlety. Whereas Transcendence bored us to death with its metaphysical mumbo jumbo about the evolution of human consciousness, Lucy embraces the madness head-on. The result is often exhilarating, and it’s certainly never boring.

— J.R. Kinnard