There is a streak of madness in “Lucy,” Luc Besson’s sci-fi thriller about a drug mule (Scarlett Johansson) inadvertently exposed to a universe-altering drug.
Audiences expecting the trailer’s revenge-style action will be inadvertently exposed to a trippy head-scratcher. Besson administers a jumble of cool special effects, metaphysical sermons and more stock footage cutaways than a war documentary on the History Channel.
The best moments come during a dazzling opening sequence. Johansson plays a struggling American student living in Taipei, Taiwan. Her sleazy friend (Pilou Asbaek) mentions how “the first-ever woman was named Lucy” — meaning Australopithecus — right before handcuffing a briefcase to her. She must deliver the unknown contents to a luxury hotel in order to retrieve the key. Any scenario she might have envisioned is nowhere near as bad as what she encounters.
Min-sik Choi (star of the original “Oldboy”) leads an army of dark-suited gangsters who force Lucy to smuggle a designer drug called CPH4 into Europe. When the bag that has been surgically implanted in her abdomen leaks, she begins to feel — what’s the word? — different.
Meanwhile, Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman, playing the same exposition-loving character he did in the thematically identical “Transcendence”) lectures on the possibilities of humans unlocking more than a tenth of their brainpower. A title card keeps a running tab throughout the film of how high Lucy’s percentage climbs, moving her “from evolution to revolution.”
“Lucy” soon falls into what I call the “Superman snag”: The more powerful the hero, the less interesting his adventures. Once Lucy is dosed with the drug, she turns invincible. There’s not even a learning curve; she instantly can dispatch any villain and accomplish any goal.
Why does Superman never get in car chases? Because he doesn’t have to. Neither does Lucy … and yet there’s a completely disposable sequence of her darting through oncoming traffic in Besson’s native Paris. Anyone able to manipulate time and space shouldn’t have to steal a Peugeot.
This snag forces Besson’s screenplay to become more introspective, leading to Lucy’s ruminations (well-performed by the dependable Johansson) about feeling the rotation of the Earth and recalling every kiss her mother has given her since birth. It’s not that this material isn’t thought-provoking in a condensed way. (I love her viewpoint that all measurement is arbitrary except for the passage of time.) But the film’s tone shifts so drastically, as if Carl Sagan suddenly replaced John Woo as director.
Besson certainly creates another strong female character to fit in his pantheon that includes “La Femme Nikita” and “Leon: The Professional.” However, he also has no compunctions lifting wholesale from other movies: “Limitless,” “The Tree of Life,” “The Matrix,” “Koyaanisqatsi.” He also peppers the film with jarring doses of supplemental imagery. It’s not enough to show Lucy meeting a crime boss. She does it in between shots of a rodent heading toward a mousetrap or a gazelle being stalked by a cheetah.
“Life was given to us a billion years ago. What have we done with it?” Lucy asks in the opening narration.
Well, Besson made this amusingly cuckoo movie. Even if he used only 10 percent of his brain, it’s an accomplishment that should not be dismissed as mindless.
Rated R | Time: 1:29
“Lucy” is based on the idea that humans use only 10 percent of their brains and that the rest is left untapped. Hogwash, says Scientific American: “Though an alluring idea, the ‘10 percent myth’ is so wrong it is almost laughable.” The journal quotes neurologist Barry Gordon at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine: “We use virtually every part of the brain, and (most of) the brain is active almost all the time.”
| Sharon Hoffmann