Perpetuating the old myth that humans use only 10% of their brains to function in everyday life, Lucy is just the latest in a long lineup of features that deal with themes of transhumanism, as director Luc Besson delivers his most entertaining picture since 2005’s Angela-A, and certainly the best action thrill-ride since The Fifth Element.
Scarlett Johansson plays Lucy, a student in her mid-twenties and living in Taiwan, who is unwillingly drawn into working as a drug mule, thanks to her fast-talking boyfriend (Pilou Asbæk). When she delivers a briefcase containing a new synthetic drug known as CPH4 to Korean kingpin Mr. Jang (Choi Min-sik), she’s soon detained and forced into transporting the drug, which is sewn into her stomach; along with three other victims she is flown into European territory. Whilst in captivity, however, Lucy is attacked by one of her jailers, who repeatedly kicks her in the stomach, rupturing the bag inside and causing an internal chain reaction, which releases the experimental drug into her bloodstream. Gradually she begins to develop heightened senses and increasing power. Escaping from her prison, she seeks to hunt down the remaining mules, in order to take the drugs back and prevent them from becoming widespread, while vowing to put an end to Mr. Jang’s reign.
Luc Besson’s career to date has been one of many ups and downs; his directorial projects post Taxi have proved largely forgettable, while his transition to overseeing successful Hollywood productions in the form of the Taken and Transporter franchises has solidified his reputation as a major producer. This somewhat explains the decision to keep his own films - however rare they may be these days - as more personal entries within his oeuvre.
With Lucy then, Besson delivers an action-packed spectacle masquerading as an intelligent commentary on what defines humanity. The result is a lean 90-minute tale offering sporadic bouts of philosophy and over-the-top violence. The set-up itself is no more implausible than your average comic-book origin tale, with Besson partially tapping into a genre which has dominated the box office for the past decade. However, Lucy isn’t designed to be sequel bait; there’s a genuine sense of finality about it, but so too an inherent self-importance through its occasionally heavy handed approach, via the way in which it carries a distinct message across its tangled, though self-contained narrative of pseudo science and National Geographic-esque imagery.
Interestingly enough Lucy feels very split down the middle. The first half serves up a terrifically tense atmosphere as our heroine gets to grips with her own mortality, interspersed with scenes of Morgan Freeman phoning it in as he hosts a lecture on cognitive functions, which serves as the basis for most of the film’s expository needs. As a means to drive the film along, these moments provide ample food for thought, even if the director remains about as subtle as a kick to the balls. Which brings us to the rest of the flick as it then descends into comic chaos. Feeling like a mash-up of Besson’s most memorable outings, Lucy is peppered with stylised sequences which do well to embrace the silliness of it all. Every ten to twenty minutes a percentage card pops up on screen to signify Lucy’s evolution and to remind us that - as well as in her own words - she’s soon to expire. Besson builds his picture toward its inevitable climax, hoping that the destination proves more important than the journey itself, but by its very nature it’s difficult to become too emotionally invested as personalities devolve into a robotic void, whilst its sentiments occasionally border on the unintentionally humourous.
Scarlett Johansson’s decisions of late have been particularly noteworthy as she flits between Hollywood blockbusters and low-key, contemplative dramas. After a minimalist, though striking performance in the relentlessly bleak Under the Skin, to her charming turn as a lovestruck operating system in Her, Lucy feels like the culmination of a loose and deeply personal trilogy, which share thematic traits in ultimately asking what it means to be human. In each of these outings, Johansson has imbued her roles with a superb innocence and soulful grace, and while the evolution of her character in Lucy is questionable, her commitment is certainly valued.
Of the rest of the cast, Amr Waked does his best to provide a little of that extra humanity, while Choi Min-sik is somewhat frustratingly underused as the main antagonist. Exhibiting similarities with that of Gary Oldman’s villain from Léon - although nowhere near as satisfyingly unhinged - he ultimately poses little threat as Lucy becomes progressively volatile; the tension once built up so beautifully, is quickly stripped away as the lead embarks on her fierce rampage.
In summary Lucy offers wonderfully daft, stylised mayhem. Just don’t think too much.