“The average person uses 10% of their brain capacity. Imagine what she could do with 100%.”
That was the tagline seen on the posters for Lucy. It’s useless harp on the fact that this ” 10%” theory is absolutely untrue. What matters is that this myth well-known and widespread, and so captured the imagination of Luc Besson’s potential audience. Unfortunately, this conceit alone is not enough to sustain an entire movie.
To understand how we arrived at Luc Besson’s latest work, it is key to first look at his career. The French director’s 90s hits were successful both critically and financially. The best ones are certainly Nikita (1990), Léon (1994) and The Fifth Element (1997). Conversely, the new millennium was hard on Besson and his firm, EuropaCorp. But after some internal reorganization at the beginning of the 2010’s, he was ready to make his comeback. Enter Lucy.
Besson’s latest features an international cast: Scarlett Johansson as Lucy, a young occidental student living in Taipei; Morgan Freeman as Professor Norman, a scientist working on neuroscience; and the great Min-sik Choi (star of the South Korean masterpiece Old Boy), who plays Mr. Chang, the chief of an Asian drug-running gang.
Lucy is the consummate example of what made Luc Besson a success in the 1990s. The French filmmaker loves to create strong female leads in his movies. Consider Nikita in the film of the same name, Leeloo in the Fifth Element and Mathilda in Léon. Moreover, Besson is known to excel with action sequences; the scene where Mathilda’s family dies in Léon comes to mind most immediately. For all of these reasons, I had high expectations for Lucy to follow suit.
You can imagine my disappointment when the film didn’t meet them. The movie isn’t boring, nor is it hard to follow. But I have the feeling that Luc Besson and EuropaCorp were more concerned with making a successful product than they were a good movie. In less than 90 minutes, we learn Lucy’s entire story. She’s a student trapped in a drug smuggling ring who gains the ability to control her brain at full capacity by using the CHP-4 (the Heisenberg’s blue meth of Besson’s universe). With her newfound power, she begins to plan her revenge against Mr. Chang’s gang.
Intelligence isn’t the only thing Lucy gains with CHP-4, however. As her brain capacity increases, she also begins unravel the whole story of humanity – including every bit of scholarship and emotion in the world. What an ambitious idea! Lucy could have worked as a fascinating counterpoint to Stanley Kubrick’s monolith – the symbol of knowledge – in 2001 : A Space Odyssey. Alas, she is regrettably held back from such grand ambition.
Lucy never seems upset about all of the new information she has to digest. She never flinches at learning the entire nature of humanity. She never struggles with her new abilities. The only time we get a glimpse at Lucy’s inner feelings is when she makes a phone call to her mother, and even then, the moment is superficial at best. Actually, “superficial” describes most things about Luc Besson’s new movie. Everything goes so fast – the sequence where Lucy’s spirit runs through billions years of Earth history in just five minutes, for example – that we never have time to process it.
I can see why Johansson accepted a role in Lucy; it’s not everyday that you get to play the leading role in a female-centric blockbuster, even if this one is French. Likewise, Min-sik Choi likely jumped at the chance to perform in a big Western production. However, I cannot figure out why the excellent Morgan Freeman bothered at all. At no point during the film does he seem even half-convinced by his own speeches about crazy brain theories.
I have the feeling that Besson trapped himself with this film. To ensure bankability and to convince Europacorp that Lucy was a good investment, Besson yielded a product that took no risks. Lucy features a simplistic story packed into less than 90 minutes, guaranteeing maximum ticket sales per day at the cost of a deeper and more gripping narrative.
Sure, you’ve got an attractive female lead heading up the film. And okay, the actions sequences that built Besson’s reputation are still there. The car chase through Paris’ streets is a particularly fantastic scene; high fluidity and lack of shaky-cam combine to offer an impressive sense of immersion. But no matter how great these moments are, if the strength of the story isn’t enough to support those elements, it all falls apart.
Lucy is an efficient and aesthetically beautiful action movie with an impressive cast. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but feel that it was 100% Luc Besson product with 0% of that Luc Besson surprise. And unfortunately, old recipes don’t always make for the best cocktail.
Movie Verdict: Meh