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Thursday, July 24, 2014

Lucy Review: Transcendence Meets Black Widow in a Dark Alley

The well-intentioned but disappointing Lucy goes all weird on us and never looks back. Lately, there's been a lot of talk in films about humans only using 10% of their brain. We've heard this for years, and while this has been proven flatly untrue, Luc Besson's Lucy forms 90 minutes of this pseudo-science into an uneven mess.

Lucy (Scarlet Johansson) is a party girl living the fast life in Taipei when she's forced to become a drug mule by the sinister villain Mr. Jang (Choi Min-Sik). Tucked in her lower abdomen is a bag of CPH4, which is eventually broken and begins to leak. As a result, this drug that pregnant women excrete begins to fill ScarJo, increasing her brain power and gifting her with powers such a telekinesis, immunity to pain, and the ability to travel through data streams and electronics. Desperate for what to do with her newfound powers, she reaches out to Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman), who encourages her to further humanity before she disappears altogether. Needing more of the drug to continue her transcendence, she enlists the help of a French police captain to arrest the other mules, while Mr. Jang gives chase. But will his help be enough to keep Jang away long enough for her journey to conclude?

Besson earned early street cred for The Fifth Element, but since then he's settled into a series of forgettable Euro-action pieces. Here, he makes a genuine attempt for something deeper, mixing psychedelic elements of 2001: A Space Odyssey, existential themes from The Fountain, and action sequences from The Matrix. The result is something less inspired. Meant to open dialogue about man's existence and his newfound love for all things fast and iPhone, Besson only scratches the surface, surrounding us with visual elements that are one minute eye-popping and the next poorly conceived and executed.

When Johansson is not on screen, the scene dies almost instantly, lost in a mix of pseudo-science and somewhat enjoyable action that never places our heroine in any real danger once she's exposed to the drug. True, the idea is to follow Lucy through her transformation, but the story does suffer once it's clearly established that no one and nothing can hurt her. That leaves audiences with one of two scenarios: enjoy the transformation or hope Besson shifts the emphasis somewhere else. Not only does the latter not happen, but Besson keeps changing the rules regarding her powers. There are points throughout where she seems as human as Professor Norman or any of the other goons and nerd-heads that overpopulate the screen. Even though the rules have been established of her growing omnipotence, Lucy can't seem to stop a gun or protect herself on a consistent basis.

One of my rules for cinema centers on maintaining a clear and concise set of rules for the audience, as it provides a needed anchor. Besson breaks his own rules when it suits him, convinced the scene will be better for it. Whether it's the pivotal transformation sequence or the ' all fall down' sizzle from the trailer, Lucy seems less powerful later in the film than she does the moment her body takes on the drug. His script also misses out on practical issues, like why Lucy needs to use a keyboard to type, when it's clear that her rapidly expanding mind can control electric impulses and human biology.

But the story by Besson also assumes that those who are forced to witness her transformation are actually ok with it. Sure, we get the whole "pass on what you have learned" request by Norman, but beyond that there is no declaration of acceptance (or worry) from anyone. Apparently, these 5%-ers never watched Transcendence. The moment she can harness such powers should fundamentally change the story, yet all it does is get lost in a minutia of long-winded speeches by Freeman and Johansson about life and seeking a higher purpose to it, while needless action set pieces occur around them.. And still, no one is worried about what this transformation can mean, either for mankind or for people's ability to not have Lucy infiltrating their systems. The only thing about Transcendence that did work was generating real worry that a being connected to everything represented a danger ala Skynet. Here, Norman and his boys actually encourage it because they want her data. What a waste.

Don't get me wrong, there are things here which do work. Besson neither flinches from ending Lucy's corporeal existence, nor does he deny her from a satisfying revenge sequence. ScarJo does her best Black Widow without the leather and tall boots, battling to retain her humanity in the process, all while Besson puts together a satisfying car chase as Jang as the cops descend on her. Composer Eric Serra's mix of electronic beats and orchestrated score serves the movie well, and Choi is a pretty entertaining bad guy. With another 10 minutes of exposition, all the Matrix-like shenanigans and ScarJo's irresistible features would have had a deeper meaning.

Some audiences will no doubt feel misled by the trailers, which depict Lucy as a stylized Summer action flick. What we get instead is a film that tries very hard to tackle hidden messages about capitalism vs socialism and pseudo-science, while showing nature shots of animals humping (no, I'm not kidding). Although ambitious like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Lucy doesn't crack open the larger implications of transcendence, denying both the action types the mindlessness they require and the serious filmgoer by failing to push the barrier beyond a pretty time travel sequence at the end. Lucy could have been so much more, but I found myself asking all the wrong questions (as did most of the audience) as the lights came up.

Lucy is rated R for strong violence, disturbing images, and sexuality and has a runtime of 90 minutes.

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