Let’s get something out of the way at the start: there’s a lot to like about Lucy. For a grandiose sci-fi/action tale, it’s almost perversely short, clocking in at only 89 minutes. To that end, the narrative economy that director Luc Besson has to employ to get the story rolling and keep it moving forward is remarkable. So too is the originality of that story. Sure, it’s based on the debunked theory that humans are only every using 10% of their brain’s capacity, but Besson uses that to jump into this weird melding of big bang theory, evolutionary science, psychedelic sequences inspired by 2001, and Scarlet Johansson in a tight dress. There’s little chance of audiences actually hitting on where this film is going and where it ends up during their first viewing.
With all that going for it, though, why did it miss the mark so completely? My feeling is that Besson just tried to pack so much into these 89 minutes that he was unable to really give himself over to any one angle completely. It seemed like he had the first third of the film really well polished but left the rest as rough sketches.
Oh what a first half-hour he gives us though. Besson drops us right into the middle of the action with a sleazy gent begging his girlfriend Lucy (Johansson) to deliver a briefcase to someone in a Taiwanese hotel. She refuses and he responds by attaching the case to her. Once in the lobby, her boyfriend is killed and she’s whisked upstairs.
Inside the case are five packages of a blue powder, a new superdrug made from a synthesized version of a fetal hormone that aids in brain development. Lucy is knocked out and has one package sewn into her body with the expectation that she will deliver it. Of course, the bag bursts open and she starts absorbing the drug, and her brain starts pushing beyond its 10% boundary. Lucy becomes superhuman, capable of controlling the world around her with just a look or a wave of her hand. (All of this is explained by Morgan Freeman’s character, but he’s tertiary to the plot at hand.)
There’s only one last great moment in the movie, when Besson trains the camera on Johansson’s face as she calls her parents back in the U.S. It’s a beautifully acted scene, with Lucy describing how she can remember every last moment of her life up to that point and the “thousands of kisses” that her mom planted on her.
From there, the whole thing goes apeshit, and not in any really spectacular way. Lucy races to collect the rest of the drugs, and pass off the massive amount of knowledge she is accruing at an exponential rate. This involves tossing policemen and Asian gangsters around like rag dolls and a car chase through the streets of Paris.
Again, because of the brevity of the film, nothing seems to stick. Even the car chase feels, dare I say, rushed and perfunctory. What’s more, the film never addresses the plot hole that if she is so powerful, why is she so dependent upon a vehicle or the help of another man to help her reach her goal. And as overblown as Besson attempts to make the fight scenes and shootouts, they have no literal or figurative punch. They glide by as the writer/director hurries towards some huge, and hugely silly, metaphysical conclusion.
You’re likely going to hear a lot of critics telling you that the key to enjoying Lucy is to shut off your logical brain before you step into the theater. If that were what I felt Bresson wanted from his audiences, I would agree. Rather, I think the director believes he’s making a smart, modern movie that challenges the brain while it strokes its pleasure center. What he did instead was to completely overreach, creating a film that’s incredibly nice to look at, but impossible to make any real sense of.