Let there be no doubt: the concept which powers Luc Besson’s new film Lucy, that human beings use only 10% of their brain capacity on average, is pseudoscience garbage. However, that fact ought not disqualify the film immediately. In truth, a little pseudoscience can go a long way at the movies. If you can accept TIE fighters making sounds as they fly through airless space in Star Wars, or the mysterious and completely unscientific powers of the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey, then Lucy should be no problem.
In fact, Lucy might be all the better for leaving “real” science behind. The Bradley Cooper vehicle Limitless also posited a person with the full 100% of his brain unleashed, but its commitment to realism made its hero uninteresting – superintelligent Cooper just wasn’t that different than regular Cooper. Freed from the constraints of the real world, Besson instead suggests that 100% brain usage would cause Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) to become not just superhuman, but post-human, or possibly inhuman. And, if there’s one thing to be learned from Under the Skin earlier this year, it’s that a possibly inhuman Johansson can be interesting indeed.
The basic idea, effectively explained by Morgan Freeman in a scene that could easily have been excruciating in the hands of an inferior director, is that full 100% brain usage would allow for full understanding of the entire universe. Johansson’s Lucy obtains comprehension of the electromagnetic spectrum and every cell in the human body all by the start of Act Two. Thus, Besson deserves credit for keeping this film propulsive and exciting despite Lucy being so powerful that the idea of any human besting her in a fight is laughable. Although Choi Min-Sik (Oldboy) is appropriately terrifying as the gangster responsible for Lucy’s plight, the central conflict of the film is not her versus him. It’s Lucy versus the unfathomable things that she can now understand.
That conflict is not especially visual, but it’s not a problem with Besson at the helm. Even at his worst, the French action maestro has shown an uncanny talent for visual storytelling, such that his films can be easily understood even without dialogue. Unfortunately, this film also indulges Besson’s most annoying habit: a tendency towards self-importance. Johansson’s committed, wink-free performance is enough by itself to sell the serious aspects of this film, but Besson decides to add not one but two super-slow-motion set-pieces with an operatic score. Still, as Lucy creeps toward the full 100% brain usage, the film goes to visual places that no other film this summer has attempted, or even considered.
Lucy opens with a sequence that might be titled ‘The Dawn of Woman’, and closes with a sequence that might be called ‘Paris and Beyond the Infinite’, so a one-sentence description could be “Luc Besson’s version of 2001.” Now, that statement has both good and bad implications. In light of Besson’s worse films, it might mean “a self-important sci-fi epic made by someone who cares more about rocket launchers than actual science.” But Besson at his best could twist that description into “an ambitious meditation on human existence, comfortably grafted onto a fast-paced action movie.” For all of its fake science, Lucy has a real desire to make the audience look at the world in a different way, and that alone makes it stand out in this year’s summer movie season.
— Mark Young