Lucy: A loony utopian fantasy of smartening up the human race

By Eileen Jones , written on July 28, 2014

From The News Desk

A lot of critics are kicking about the new hit film Lucy because it isn’t scientifically accurate. Jocelyn Noveck of the Associated Press makes the case:

So let's start with the enticing premise of Luc Besson's "Lucy," starring Scarlett Johansson: Human beings only use 10 percent of their brain capacity. Imagine what it would be like if we could access all of it?

Well, wow. It would be sort of like ... nothing new. Because, it turns out, in real life, humans pretty much DO use their whole brains. Two things:

  • nobody sane goes to Hollywood sci-fi action movies looking for scientific accuracy, and
  • the reason people remember that specious 10% claim is because it accurately reflects how most of us feel, personally, about our own intelligence—we’re sure we’re not using it fully because we’re too damn lazy and weak-willed and badly trained and distracted and boozy and pathetic and never really exerted ourselves like we knew we should’ve.
That’s what makes Lucy such a rollicking fantasy. It takes our own secret belief in our banked powers that, if tapped, would set the world on fire, and makes a spectacular display of them.

Speaking of spectacular displays, Scarlett Johansson plays Lucy, the unwilling drug mule whose mother-lode of brainpower is released when the packet of experimental drugs sewn into her stomach leaks electric blue brilliance through her system.

Johansson starts off the film playing a tatty victim of her own pulchritude, the kind of addled young woman you find in the clubs of every major city, tarted up in spandex mini-skirts and dye-damaged hair, tottering on their high heels, routinely abused by moronic boyfriends. It’s quite a character arc to turn one of these sad creatures into a modern goddess Athena—still wearing an outfit of mini-skirt and heels, but a much better, finer, godlier outfit of mini-skirt and heels.

Scarlett Johansson is, of course, up to the demands of the role. What a star! Lately we’ve had a cycle of films that attest to her amazing beauty, charisma, and aplomb when doing the simplest things: call it the Scarlett Johansson Walks series. As Black Widow in The Avengers, as the alien in Under the Skin, and now as Lucy, we watch her walk, deadpan, bent on some mission of her own.

Sometimes she’s confronted by obstacles, such as men with weapons trying to stop her for some reason. They’re mere nuisances. She flicks them away without breaking stride, too superior even to bother expressing contempt. Nothing disturbs her animal self-possession and smooth, balanced forward motion. Cougars stalking their prey convey a similarly mesmerizing quality of physical undulation and intensity of gaze.

Under the Skin, the glacially slow, artily erotic sci-fi thriller from earlier this year, took the fascination of Scarlett Johansson Walks as far as it could go, varying it with long sequences of Scarlett Johansson Drives a Van. (The Spike Jonze film Her concentrates on her husky alto voice alone: Scarlett Johansson Talks.) No other female actor working today could have sustained such a filmic experiment. She’s become the go-to star for representing the hypnotic Future Woman at an advanced stage of evolution, her DNA seemingly combined with lethal higher mammals, interstellar space aliens, and the sleekest computer technology.

If you want to get academic about it, you could think of her as Donna Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto” fulfilled, a being superbly melding human, animal, and machine. And not a moment too soon, either. We were wondering when she’d finally show up.

Because Future Woman narratives have always preoccupied director Luc Besson, it’s no surprise he cast Scarlett Johansson in Lucy, his latest one. He’s a goofy, perverse Pygmalion in his drive to fashion pop-culture mini-skirted transcendent Galateas in La Femme Nikita, Leon: The Professional, and The Fifth Element. (He even married two of them: Anne Parillaud of Nikita and Milla Jovovich, who played the baby-voiced alien savior in Fifth Element and Joan of Arc in Besson’s The Messenger.)

In La Femme Nikita, the Besson film that seems most relevant to Lucy, Besson works with what might be considered the George Bernard Shaw variation on the old Greek Pygmalion myth. In Shaw’s original play Pygmalion, Galatea is Eliza Dolittle, who outpaces her creator Henry Higgins, rebels, and escapes to pursue her own self-creation. Besson borrows that for the end of Nikita, when the protagonist, transformed from homeless junkie to absurdly glamorous assassin, escapes the man who trained her by disappearing, headed for an unknown destination. And at the end of Lucy, Besson shoots for the narrative stratosphere—his latest ideal woman is destined to go beyond time, space, and molecular coherence. When a man asks, “Where is Lucy,” her last line of the film appears instantly on his cell phone, against a screen display of the star-filled universe: “I am everywhere.”

When it comes to gorgeous, fearless, hilarious hooey, it’s hard to beat Besson. His furious dedication to genre film has always been endearing. This is the man who defied all film critics by leading the much-scorned “cinema du look” movement of the 1980s, crossing European art film tendencies with high-octane genre action, propulsive music video cutting, and fashion advertising gloss. He co-founded the super-successful production-distribution company EuropaCorp that’s given us such kinetic actioners as the Transporter series, Taken, District 13, Ong Bak: Muay Thai Warrior, plus a remarkable variety of international films of all sorts, even including the occasional respectable indie like Nil by Mouth or I Love You Phillip Morris.

With Lucy he’s thrown down the genre gauntlet again with a short, fast, violent, outrageously overconfident film full of ludicrous pseudo-science and crazy pop-philosophy. Nobody likes it but the public.

Hollywood Reporter critic John DeFore complains that the film is boring because, once Lucy becomes drug-fueled Superwoman, she’s invulnerable to the Taiwanese gangsters chasing her. (And as the Big Boss, Choi Min-sik of Oldboy fame is a considerable gangster, phlegmatic, pock-marked, and dead-eyed.)

…Besson doles out powers in a way that nullifies much of the drama to come. Once we've seen this woman put an entire room of people to sleep with the wave of a hand, why would we be worried for her when a smaller gang is pointing guns at her?
DeFore doesn’t seem to get it. The narrative momentum of Lucy doesn’t rely on suspense over whether or not she can handle a bunch of increasingly angry and heavily armed Taiwanese gangsters. The film is structured around Lucy’s own metamorphosis caused by the rapid expansion of her brain functioning. Slashing black title cards cut into imagery to chart her progress: 20% 50%! 60% 90%! Blasting on through to the godlike status of 100%!

When it comes to gangsters, we just want to see them dispatched with ever greater efficiency. To put it bluntly, after the set-up, the men in the film don’t matter much.

Necessarily in an action-fantasy film, brainpower improves everything, including physical strength and fighting skills. At a mere 20% Lucy achieves a state of completely centered, focused calm that is perfect for the performance of martial arts and the efficient breaking of an opponent’s limbs. As she moves up the scoreboard her memory recovers everything that ever happened to her, she can hear the thoughts of others, she can see the energy animating trees, and she achieves psycho-kinesis, pre-cognition, and the selective suspension of the laws of gravity.

As these are all personal goals of mine, it’s pretty thrilling to watch.

Lucy’s also striving toward a mighty objective: immortality. Before the body-death she knows is imminent, Lucy has to figure out how to pass on the immensity of her individual knowledge. She got this idea from the neuroscientist Dr. Norman, played by Morgan Freeman aka God in All Mainstream American Films, who lectures on the development of the brain in human evolution. In several scenes he tells large attentive audiences that in favorable circumstance humans reproduce, and in unfavorable circumstances we seek immortality through other means of paying humanity forward. At least, that’s how it’s always gone.

But, he posits in a nutty conclusion, maybe some amazingly smart freak of nature could achieve “not just evolution, but revolution.”

And the next thing you know Lucy is time-travelling back so far she meets up with Australopithecus Lucy, the bipedal hominid we call our distant ancestor, and touches her hairy outstretched finger like God touched Adam in the Michelangelo painting. It’s revolutionary all right, a complete circular spin through human time, Lucy to Lucy. The film’s a loony utopian fantasy of smartening up the human race, and some people—actually, it turns out, a lot of people—crave that sort of thing.