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Is Scarlett Johansson's 'Lucy' the Summer's Smartest Dumb Movie, or Its Dumbest Smart One?

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire July 23, 2014 at 12:51PM

Luc Besson's fleet thriller isn't book-smart, but it's not as dumb as it looks.
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Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson's "Lucy"
Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson's "Lucy"

Sometimes, it seems as if critics agree on the best way to frame a movie before any of them has written a word. In the case of Luc Besson's "Lucy," make that two words: "smart" and "dumb," at least one of which, and often both, figure in nearly every early reaction to the movie. Perhaps it's inevitabey given that Besson's fleet thriller focuses on the capabilities of the human brain, specifically the oft-repeated (if utterly apocryphal) canard that humans use only 10 percent of their cerebral capacity. Scarlett Johansson's character, who none-too-subtly shares a name with the archetypical Australopithecus afarensis, is a not-overbright American student in Taipei until she's inadvertently given a megadose of a designer drug that mimics a hormone critical to the development of the fetal brain. As a result, Lucy's own brain shifts into hyperdrive, harnessing untapped cognitive potential, psychic powers, and eventually what amounts to Godlike omniscience.

Like a lot of "Lucy," this makes sense as long as you don't think about it too hard, which even the critics who love the movie suggest is the best course of action. "I would say that you should check your brain at the door before going into the theater to thoroughly enjoy Lucy, but that’s not quite right," writes the Wire's David Sims. "You should check out your brain, have it scrubbed with the magic blue crystals Scarlett Johansson’s titular character accidentally ingests via unwanted surgery, and then pop it back into your skull. All the better to enjoy Luc Besson’s raving madman of a Hollywood action flick, which begins as your typical Asian tourism panic movie and ends with a cracked-out mental journey through time, space, and every plane of existence." The Guardian's Jordan Hoffman called it "charming in its stupidity," and Indiewire's Eric Kohn said it delivers "an unapologetically stupid antidote to stupid movies that don't even bother to try something different." Metro's Matt Prigge takes the issue to the next level, sorting the movie's various aspects into "smart," "stupid," stupid-smart" and "smart-stupid." But I would suggest that "Lucy" is a movie that transcends the smart/dumb divide altogether — or, more to the point, evolves beyond it.

"Lucy's" smarts, such as they are, are not of the verbal variety, which may be what's tripping some critics up. Sure, Morgan Freeman's evolutionary biologist has a long speech, chopped up into pieces so as not to try the audience's patience, about the way cells choose between reproduction and immortality, but even though it's based on a real scientific concept, the notion is simplified to the point of unintelligibility. At a later point, as he's coming to terms with the way Lucy's rapid development has both proved and obliterated his theories, he murmurs "Time is unity" as if it's a profound revelation rather than stoner gibberish. 

But then words have never been Besson's wheelhouse, and from its opening image of an early hominid — perhaps the original Lucy herself — drinking water from a prehistoric pool, it's clear that "Lucy" is a story in pictures more than it is words. Besson uses copious nature footage — the list of visual works cited, which includes Ron Fricke's "Baraka" and "Samsara," takes up nearly a full screen in the closing credits — to evoke the progression of the planet and its species, intercutting footage of a clueless Johansson with a naive gazelle as a lion moves in for the kill. The movie's final movement is like a whiz-bang equivalent of "2001: A Space Odyssey's" "Beyond the Infinite," instilling a sense of genuine awe akin to the creation sequence in Terence Malick's "The Tree of Life." (And no, I can't believe I just wrote that, either.)

This being a Luc Besson movie, "Lucy" includes plenty of car chases and gunplay, but as Johansson's mind progresses to the point where her consciousness outstrips her physical form, the action-movie staples begin to seem more and more ridiculous: She's evolved beyond them, and the movie has, too. Everytime Besson cuts away the final stage of Lucy's transformation to show the gun battle raging outside, it's as if the movie's saying, "Really, you're still paying attention to this?" (Of course, Besson's paying attention to it as well: "Lucy" is not about to choose between having its cake and eating it.) 

Perhaps the greatest marvel in "Lucy" is Johansson herself, who's even better here than in "Under the Skin." There's a long single take of Johansson's face as Lucy talks to her mother on the phone, channeling the last vestiges of her former humanity before her ever-expanding mind wipes them away, that's as good as anything she's ever done, and all the more striking in contrast to the movie's rapid-fire montage. Besson's not shy about exploiting Johansson's primal appeal — Lucy spends an awful lot of the movie in a black bra and a white T-shirt, the better to show off the parts of the human animal that apparently need no further evolution — but he also gives her room, even within "Lucy's" minimalist running time, for well-crafted character beats, like the way the pre-evolved Lucy shuffles along in her too-tight skirt and the way her later incarnation confidently strides along on Louboutin stilettos. It's odd to say about someone who's been acting as long as Johansson, but it feels in some ways as if she's just coming into her true powers as an actress: She's evolving as well, and she's not done yet.

This article is related to: Lucy, Scarlett Johansson, Luc Besson, Morgan Freeman, Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life, Samsara


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