By Gabe Toro | The Playlist July 23, 2014 at 12:00PM
There's a moment in Luc Besson's “Lucy” when Scarlett Johansson's title character has cracked the code of existence like a videogame cheat. She goes Rust Cohle on who are appropriately the smartest minds of the world, explaining how numbers are just one of many false constructs that humans use to bring sense to a life of chaos. Which is amusing, since “Lucy” itself is all math—one beautiful superstar (a game Johansson), one Morgan Freeman (Morgan Freeman), a chase, some fights, superpowers, a brief moment of transcendence, gorgeous colors, all wrapped up in an 80-minute bow. Merely the presence of these elements are a delight, nevermind the inconsistently lyrical manner in which Besson combines them. It's basically the perfect summer movie, because it's designed to be.
Johansson begins “Lucy” as a grad student party girl, forced to go on an errand for boyfriend Richard (Pilou Asbaek of “A Hijacking”) that eventually finds her unwillingly turned into a drug mule for a volatile new chemical that basically synthesizes the essence of life. The nature of this drug trafficking, or why gang bosses like Mr. Jang (Choi Min-Sik) rely on it, are obnoxiously vague, because the movie just needs Lucy to accidentally overdose on this science-fiction concoction in order to unlock the higher percentage of her cerebral cortex. If you hold dearly to the idea that the “10% of our brains” concept is a myth, this movie isn't for you: not only is it cold hard science in this film, but it also represents something of a ticking bomb in this aspect. It's like watching a videogame where as a character progresses, their power bar increases rather than deflates.
On a most basic level, “Lucy” is at the intersection of “Akira” and “Crank,” with Johansson's brainpower increasing her ability to control the people and places around her, toying with physical matter as if she were fingerpainting as she searches for more of this miracle drug. There's relatively zero tension in “Lucy” by design, as the thrill emerges from the disappearance of limitation: in one amusing sequence, she's confronted by thugs and, with a wave of her hand, she floats them to the ceiling as they wildly throw punches into the air. Say this for “Lucy”: based on no previous material, it's nonetheless a real comic book fantasia in its depiction of Lucy's increasing abilities. Our legions of superhero films have dominated the culture in spite of their mundane moments of characters becoming something more than human, only for them to boringly take flight or trade fisticuffs with equally powerful punching bags. “Lucy” certainly raises the bar in that aspect, with a heroine who folds the world as if it were deli bread, preferring to bend the rules of physics surrounding her. There's a massive shootout near the end, and Lucy's inaction in this moment feels like more of a show of contempt. You dumb humans and your popguns.
Johansson, unsurprisingly, is a delight. Following “Under The Skin,” this is the second movie of 2014 that finds the world's most beautiful woman utterly perplexed by the rest of humanity. She treats Lucy's new-found and slowly building skills as a form of functioning autism. She loses any and all patience with people still figuring anything out in the world, and it's meant to be the steady resolve of a woman slowly being bombarded by all the information one could imagine and trying to maintain her composure. As such, she's testy and distant. Her final real moment of humanity happens early on, when she sits on an operating table and slowly learns of her ability to remember anything while on the phone with her perplexed mother. Besson, prankster that he is, could have played this moment for laughs, but instead it's touching and metaphysically fascinating: here she is with her creator, developing the awareness that she's surpassing her in every single way. It's one of cinema's most clever illustrations of godhood.
“Lucy” is really something of a stunt, an excuse for a character to develop a higher power for genre purposes. Any time a character has to address the philosophical ideas in the plot, the picture stalls: Besson is clearly more at home with his visual wit, like a strikingly realistic car chase that defies every law of safety. Lucy's brain capacity keeps popping up onscreen in big numbers—20%, 40%—building to that climax. And when it arrives, it's complete Looney Tunes, a whirling fantasia of effects and images that begins to bend the fabric of space and time as even Morgan Freeman looks on, flummoxed. It's almost as if Lucy herself is trying to escape her own movie. It's as if Besson himself knows that he, like other filmmakers, are better than this, better than the CGI orgy, better than the endless brawls, better than the tacky genre-defining one-on-one confrontations. You dumb humans and your popguns. [B+]