Ever since I saw THE AVENGERS two summers ago I’ve been hoping that Marvel would feature Scarlett Johansson as her Black Widow character in a standalone film that was more of a thriller than a superhero movie. When I saw the trailer for LUCY in May I was pleased to see that she’d finally gotten her own action movie. I was also intrigued by the similarity of the plot elements to different anime I’ve seen, most notably “Baoh,” about a government experiment that turns a hapless subject into a super-soldier who then escapes and goes rogue. Internet forums have suggested LUCY’s similarity to an anime series called “Elfen Lied,” which I’ve never seen but am now determined to see. The protagonist of “Elfen Lied” is also named Lucy. All of this compelled me to go see LUCY last night.
LUCY is the first fully satisfying multiplex entertainment I’ve seen since 2012, when THE EXPENDABLES 2 and Tarantino’s DJANGO UNCHAINED were released. It’s a science fiction movie, with thriller elements, that is full of clever and imaginative sci-fi touches, exciting well-staged action, an unpredictable plot and a mind-blowing finale that tackles the whole question of man’s relation to the cosmos. But most of all, it’s a vehicle for Ms. Johansson. She dominates the film from start to finish and director Luc Besson wisely gives her lots of closeups. The entire movie plays out on her face and Johansson brings to life every transition the character goes through in the course of the trauma her body undergoes after accidentally absorbing a drug designed to increase the use of her brainpower.
The drug winds up giving her all sorts of powers that would make her a superhero in any other film, e.g. being able to instantly decipher other languages, diagnose patients’ conditions by touch, mentally control others’ movements and command computers, phones and other electronic implements to do her bidding. When she takes the wheel and speeds effortlessly through the streets of Paris, she tells her driving companion, “I’ve never driven before.” But the difference here is that she recognizes that she’s doomed and has only a finite amount of time to fulfill her mission before her body gives out from the strain of the drug. She has to find the rest of this particular drug supply and remove it from circulation before the Korean crime boss who injected her with it (to carry as a drug mule to London) retrieves the supplies himself. In the course of it, she gets help from a sympathetic Parisian cop (Amr Waked) and a noted American scientist (Morgan Freeman) who’s done research on the capabilities of the brain.
In the first sequence, Lucy is a footloose American girl in Taipei who is tricked by the guy she’s dating into delivering a case to Mr. Jang, the Korean crime boss (Choi Min-sik from OLDBOY), and is soon his prisoner and is set to carry a portion of the drug in a package which has been surgically implanted in her abdomen. During the scenes with the Koreans, none of whom speak English, she witnesses cold-blooded murder and brutality and is terrified for her life. She cries, she pleads, she reacts to the horrors multiplying around her. We get involved in the action because we care about her and want to see her survive.
When a thug serving as her captor kicks her in the abdomen, the drug is released into Lucy’s bloodstream and all hell soon breaks loose as she kills her captors, escapes and sets out to not only seek revenge but to retrieve the drug supplies from three other prisoners forced to work as couriers and headed to different cities (Rome, Berlin, Paris). The smarter Lucy gets—with a percentage readout flashing periodically to indicate how much of her brain she’s now using–the easier it becomes to stay ahead of the machinations of the bad guys, but when the drug starts to have horrifying side effects, it soon becomes a race against time, especially after Jang and his army of black-suited henchmen descend on Paris and the lab where Lucy is holed up with Dr. Norman (Freeman) trying to process what’s happening to her.
The scenes between Lucy and Dr. Norman offer a relief from the nonstop action as they sit together and try to cope with this extraordinary evolutionary activity she’s undergoing. There’s a gentleness and tenderness in their scenes together that keeps the human element front and center as things get crazier and crazier around them. Dr. Norman is virtually the only person Lucy meets who understands her plight and offers emotional support for what she’s going through.
Eventually, the film enters cosmic mind trip territory, a la Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and some of the wilder anime like “Serial Experiments Lain.” Lucy goes on a psychic, cosmic journey that takes her through time and space and includes a wonderful side trip to Times Square that reminded me of dreams I’ve had and a documentary film project I’d once embarked on. Do I necessarily understand the finale? No, but then I’m not supposed to. There are things humans aren’t yet capable of comprehending. If I did understand it, I’m sure I’d be disappointed and say, “Is that all there is?” Whenever definitive answers are given in science fiction films like this, they seem awfully prosaic. (Think Brian De Palma’s MISSION TO MARS.) The fact is, we don’t know and we can’t know. At least not at this primitive stage of our development. Maybe I’ll understand the ending if I see the movie a few more times. Maybe someone on the internet will offer a theory that sounds right to me. But until then, I don’t mind the mystery.
Having said that, I’m not going to argue that Besson’s sequence is anywhere near as deep or profound as Kubrick’s. It does rely on pretty conventional and recognizable imagery and the generally accepted consensus on how the universe began. It certainly would have been a bit bolder and more innovative with some truly groundbreaking cosmic imagery that broke with conventional notions and implied something a little harder to grasp, much like Kubrick’s film did back in 1968. Still, I got swept up in it all and appropriately dazzled by it, maybe not in the intellectual way that Kubrick’s film might have grabbed me 40 years ago, but certainly in a thrill-ride manner befitting a low-to-medium budget Luc Besson thriller in 2014.
Even before the cosmic finale, director Besson consistently plays with cinematic time and space throughout the film, cutting to the distant past during Dr. Norman’s early lecture with a scene involving humanity’s ancestor, “Lucy,” that recalls a similar scene in the opening of Kubrick’s 2001. (This Lucy later shows up in the finale as well.) Plus, Besson gives us lots of film clips and nature footage to comment on the action from time to time. It’s done in a consistently playful way and only rarely seemed heavy-handed to me (e.g. the cheetah-stalking-her-prey clip intercut with Jang’s men stalking their prey–Lucy).
In any event, this was the best Luc Besson film I’ve seen so far and I hope he keeps giving us mid-range genre movies with short running times and interesting actors who aren’t quite big stars. I love the fact that this movie was only 90 minutes long. A perfect length for movies, if you ask me. I mean, I can understand LAWRENCE OF ARABIA being three hours and thirty-six minutes, because it has an epic story grounded in history and one that resonates in today’s headlines, as well as films like BEN-HUR, EL CID and THE LONGEST DAY. But when giant robot movies like TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION are nearly three hours long, it just gets to be overkill. Even though PACIFIC RIM, THE WOLVERINE and GODZILLA were just over two hours, I was exhausted by the time the films got to their finales and I just lost interest. LUCY is a perfectly manageable length and doesn’t overstay its welcome.
The film also continues my Parisian theme of the previous three entries in that the film is officially a French film and part of it was shot in Paris.
What Paris looks like through Lucy’s enhanced vision:
Speaking of which, on the way to Paris on July 1, the in-flight movies were AMERICAN HUSTLE and SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK, neither of which I’d care to write about here, but I did appreciate the performances by Jennifer Lawrence in both. They were the first movies I’ve seen of hers. She managed to make her two contrived characters absolutely compelling and believable. She’s got real movie star chops. So I got to thinking, why not an action movie starring Scarlett Johansson and Jennifer Lawrence. (ScarJo and J-Law, yeeeeh-haaah!) I have just the vehicle in mind, too. A remake of the Hong Kong action film, SO CLOSE (2002), which starred Shu Qi and Vicki Zhao Wei as two high-tech sisters who go after corporate criminals, all part of a campaign to avenge the death of their inventor father at the hands of a corporation that stole the technology he perfected. Karen Mok plays the no-nonsense policewoman who goes after the sisters before becoming their ally.
For a proposed English-language remake, I would cast ScarJo and J-Law as the two sisters, with the third female role, that of the police detective, going to… Rooney Mara! All three of my current favorite Hollywood actresses in one film! What’s not to love?
P.S. There’s an article called “The Problem with ‘Lucy’ and White Feminism,” by Hannah Smith-Yen, critiquing the film’s casual violence meted out to Asians by a white heroine in an Asian setting. Here’s the link: