Lucy is French director Luc Besson’s first foray into science fiction since 1997’s semi-classic The Fifth Element, but while that entertaining, compelling film was a pulpy space opera that could have come from the pages of Heavy Metal magazine (albeit a somewhat tamer issue), Lucy finds Besson interested in much more philosophical and intellectual concerns — but only to a point. The plot follows the title character, played by Scarlett Johansson, an American woman living in Taipei, Taiwan whose flirty relationship with a fellow she just started dating somehow ends up with her becoming an unwilling mule for a drug cartel (whose boss is played by the great Choi Min-sik of Oldboy fame). A package of drugs is surgically implanted in her abdomen, but the package breaks open and the drugs are absorbed into her system.
Except these are not your normal drugs. The overdose unlocks Lucy’s brain and allows her to begin using the untapped 90 percent of our mind that is just sitting up there collecting dust. That, in turn, makes her into a superbeing who is able to soon control her own body’s reactions and abilities, the will of others and eventually the manipulation, creation and destruction of matter itself. And she still isn’t at 100 percent yet…
Human evolution is a standard subject in sci-fi and been featured in plenty of wildly diverse films, from Byron Haskin’s obscure scientific thriller The Power (1968) to Ken Russell’s hallucinogenic Altered States (1980) to the multiple movies of the X-Men franchise. The idea itself is fascinating on the surface: what will humanity be capable of if it opens up previously unknown areas of the brain? What will the species be like hundreds or even thousands of years from now (assuming we get out of even the current decade alive)?
The director (who also co-wrote the script) touches on these questions in the second and third acts of the film, but remember, this is a Luc Besson movie so some of the first abilities that Lucy manifests are fighting skills and a natural talent with guns. That is one of the problems with Lucy: despite the more cerebral subject matter, Besson wants to make an action movie, too and that desire seems to continually tip the movie’s balance away from anything too complex and into the realm of silliness. He also seems to have little confidence in the viewer’s own ability to process information: the first third of the film constantly cuts away to scenes that are supposed to highlight what the characters (mostly Morgan Freeman, who gets the thankless role of Professor Exposition) are talking about as if we’re flipping through an illustrated textbook. So when the kindly professor discusses the reproductive urges of animals, guess what we cut to?
That weird set of choices aside, Lucy struggles to stay engaging. Much of the heavy lifting falls on the shapely shoulders of Johansson, who plays the advanced form of Lucy as a sort of automaton; she delivers many of her lines in more monotone fashion than usual (this makes Lucy a semi-companion piece to this year’s earlier, overrated Under the Skin, in which she played a similarly impenetrable — pun intended — alien). Perhaps this is supposed to hint that Lucy has left emotion behind, but since we barely know who she is to begin with, we hardly get any sense of what all this is doing to her psychologically or spiritually. The supporting cast is not much help: Freeman is just there to deliver a series of info dumps, while Egyptian actor Amr Waked wanders into the second half of the film as a cop who attaches himself to Lucy for the inevitable showdown with the drug cartel. Only Choi adds some quirkiness to the otherwise standard Asian mob boss.
By the time we get to the visual pyrotechnics of the film’s finale, as Lucy taps more and more of her brain’s capacity, the movie has become so overwrought, exhausting and outright nutty that the potential — both cinematic and thematic — of what is happening to her gets canceled out. Some of the effects, to be sure, are much more interesting than the violence and car chases that precede them, such as when Lucy spews a sort of organic, self-replicating computer out of her mouth (yes, you read that right). But it makes one wish that Besson had used perhaps more of his own brain capacity and aimed higher with his story, instead of relying mostly on his old action tricks. It all ends up playing out like an ADD fever dream or an especially dopey video game, when it could have been more. When Lucy, at one point, travels back in time to meet her namesake, the hominid ancestor of homo sapiens whose partial skeleton was famously discovered in 1974, you have to wonder just which species Besson was writing the movie for.
Lucy opens on Friday (July 25).