'Lucy': Hot Buttered Popcorn, With Plenty Of Nuts

Based on the theory that humans only use 10 percent of their brains, science-fiction film Lucy explores the possibilities when humans use full mental capacity through the title character played by Scarlett Johansson. i i
Universal Pictures
Based on the theory that humans only use 10 percent of their brains, science-fiction film Lucy explores the possibilities when humans use full mental capacity through the title character played by Scarlett Johansson.
Universal Pictures
As Lucy is able to use more of her brain, and her abilities continue to evolve, she looks to professor Samuel Norman — an expert on the human brain played by Morgan Freeman — for some explanations.

As Lucy is able to use more of her brain, and her abilities continue to evolve, she looks to professor Samuel Norman — an expert on the human brain played by Morgan Freeman — for some explanations. Jessica Forde/Universal Pictures hide caption

itoggle caption Jessica Forde/Universal Pictures

What would you do if you could access 100 percent of your brain's potential processing power? Reverse climate change? Pick up new languages while you sleep? Pay your rent on time? Invent an iPhone capable of making and receiving telephone calls?

More important: Would you savor the salty, crunchy, hot-buttered freshness of writer-director-mogul Luc Besson's wiggedy-wack but truly, madly deeply watchable thriller Lucy — a Ritalin-spiked pixy stick of a movie that pinches almost as much from Tree of Life as it does from The Matrix — even more? Or considerably less?

If it's the latter, then I pity you, Mr. or Ms. Fully Self-Actualized.

Look, this was already Scarlett Johansson's year: Just in the past eight months, she's given movie-elevating performances as the voice of Samantha, the self-aware operating system in Her (way to steal a film where we never even see you!); as the canny covert operative Black Widow in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (way not to get buried amid all that expensive pixel-smashing!); and, most spectacularly, as a mysterious being on a mysterious mission in Under the Skin, 2014's most purely cinematic film to date. Though made for a modest $13 million, it's recouped less than 20 percent of that in U.S. theatrical receipts. This is why we can't have nice movies, America. (In fact, we've had rather a lot of them this summer, no?)

Anyway, Lucy feels like the pre-chewed multiplex companion piece to that art house provocation, and a victory lap for its fascinating star. It isn't, how you say, smart, but — like last month's terrific Edge of Tomorrow — it's smarter than you expect. Which, adjusted for blockbuster inflation and high fructose corn syrup intake, feels like Very Smart Indeed, at least for the svelte 89 minutes of your life this film demands. At last, a would-be summer blockbuster that respects your time!

Arriving on the heels of the fifth Spider-Man and the seventh X-Men, Lucy channels the "Hey, Kids — SCIENCE!" spirit of early '60s Marvel Comics more truly than either of them. In those scripts that Stan "The Man" Lee used to grind out at a rate of six or seven per month, exposure to radiation invariably conferred superpowers instead of cancer. Well. Lucy does for recreational drugs what The Fantastic Four did for Gamma Rays. If the overdose is massive enough and the dope powerful enough, it unlocks doors previously accessible only to those who've read The Secret. Or Flowers for Algernon.

For the first 10 minutes, our Lucy (ScarJo) is just a party-loving American expat in Taipei who has fallen in with a really wrong crowd. A family of mobsters commanded by Choi Min-sik — the South Korean star of Park Chan-wook's admirably sick-minded international hit Oldboy — sews a bag of superdope inside her gut against her will, which is as every bit as gross and terrifying as it sounds. When the bag ruptures, instead of expiring in a blast of endorphin-soaked euphoria, our Lucy finds herself crabwalkin' on the ceiling like Linda Blair. Or Lionel Ritchie. Or Spider-Pig, depending on what decade this is.

But these are mere growing pains on the bumpy road to post-biological omnipotence (so long, deodorant! Smell ya later, dental floss!), a road that — as Brilliant Neuroscientist or Something Dr. Morgan Freeman, Ph.D. (Morgan Freeman) explains in a lecture at L'Académie du Cinéma la Fausee Science et Exposition that's intercut with the drug-smuggling story — we too could travel If We Only Had The Full Use of Our Pre-Installed Brain, as the song goes.

It's actually a different Suspiciously Well-Informed Movie Doctor who has the duty of explaining to ScarJo that the stuff in her system is in fact a synthetic version of a chemical expectant mothers produce naturally to nourish the babies in their wombs. As that baby formula swims through her all-grown-up bloodstream, ScarJo begins another cycle of rapid evolution, developing the ability to manipulate her body at the cellular level, to see and manipulate radio waves, and eventually, to surf the space-time continuum from an office chair.

Which is not where I was expecting this movie to go.

Sorry, what's that? Yes, of course she's gonna take care of the rapey, tatted-up creeps who tried to make her their drug mule. Lucy goes from tearful sheep to cold-eyed wolf in one scene, but why make us wait? After efficiently sating our bloodlust for those degenerates, the movie gets on to other, more interesting business. Namely, Lucy has to get herself to Dr. Freeman so her unprecedented advance in human evolution can be observed and documented and written about in goop magazine. She also needs to acquire the rest of the stash — there were other mules, you see — "for medicinal purposes," as she deadpans. (This is a movie that confidently understands what its druggies want: More drugs! ALL OF THE DRUGS!)

Besson — best known for the odd and visually rich action pictures La Femme Nikita, Léon: The Professional, and The Fifth Element — churns out films at a tireless pace, but it's been a long while since a picture he directed made much of a splash in Cinémas américains. Last year, his witness protection comedy The Family did a fast fade, despite the presence of Robert De Niro, Tommy Lee Jones and the too-seldom-seen Michelle Pfeiffer. We tend to prefer the Transporter and Taken franchises, wherein Besson, credited as a writer and producer, seems to scribble a few notes on a bar napkin and leave the stunt coordinators to work out the rest. (Which is not to deny Liam Neeson's A Very Particular Set of Skills telephone monologue from Taken its rightful place as the St. Crispin's Day speech of the 21st century.)

Lucy is a welcome reminder of just how much Besson's wry sensibility as a filmmaker adds to movies like this. It opens with a shamelessly prurient extreme close-up of cell division while Eric Serra's vaguely porn-y slow-jam score bumps and grinds along. When Lucy is in danger, Besson (who also edited the picture) cuts to shots of a big cat stalking a gazelle. Later, we get flashes of animals (and humans) mating and giving birth, a real-time, channel-surfing commentary on the story we're watching. It seems impossible that no filmmaker has thought to do this already, but I can't think of one offhand. Good job, Monsieur Besson.

Like so many other movies this summer, this is an international affair, traveling from Taipei to Berlin to Paris. Egyptian actor Amr Waked even gets a second-banana role as a bewildered Parisian police captain.

But Besson finds a way to make his obligatory superhero origin scenes feel fresh. In the funniest doctor visit in a movie since the xenomorph abortion in Prometheus, Lucy corrals a surgeon at gunpoint and orders him to remove the leaking bag of superdope. While he's doing that, she phones home. One of the drug's early effects is total recall of everything she's ever experienced. "I can remember the taste of your milk," she tells her bewildered mom. At least one person in the theater groaned in revulsion, but I thought it was touching.

The climax, set in Paris, crosscuts Lucy's meetup with a roomful of the World's Most Brilliant Scientists with a gunbattle between the French police and the Taiwanese gangsters in the corridors outside. (Smuggling drugs through customs requires surgical rape, but flying from Taipei to Paris with enough fully automatic weapons to storm the Bastille all over again ain't no thing, apparently.) Besson cuts the shootout in a way that conveys his diminished interest in it: One insert shows a statue, probably hundreds of years old, losing its nose to a stray round. Always these morons and their guns, its expression seems to say.

Meanwhile at the grown-up table, ScarJo holds court with the eggheads. "Now that I have access to the furthest reaches of my brain, I see things clearly," she begins.

It doesn't even sound clunky when she says it. Now that, ladies and gentlemen, is a movie star.

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