Besson's 'Lucy' loses its mind

by Andrew Kingsley | 7/28/14 2:13pm

It’s unfortunate that I watched this film right after seeing “Particle Fever” (2013) at the Loew Theater Friday night. The film is a beautiful homage to being human and the wonders of knowledge, and Luc Besson’s “Lucy” (2014) had the same intentions. A question and answer bookend the film: “Life was given to us a billion years ago. What have we done with it?” followed by “Life was given to us a billion years ago. Now you know what to do with it.” But along the way, it tailspins into absurdity and misanthropy, reducing mankind to an animalistic species scrambling with its head chopped off.

Fundamentally, the film is based on the fallacy that humans only use 10 percent of their total mental capacity. Just because Morgan Freeman says so doesn’t make it truth — this isn’t “Bruce Almighty” (2003). To clarify, we do use nearly 100 percent of our brainpower, just not all at once.

At the center of it all is Scarlett Johansson’s Lucy, named after our most famous early human ancestor, a 3.2 million-year-old hominid whose skeleton was discovered in 1974. After getting roped into a Taiwanese drug trade, she has a package of synthetic drugs called CPH4 sewn into her stomach, which ruptures when she is kicked by her captor. Like the radioactive spider that bit Peter Parker, the CPH4 transforms Lucy into a superhero of sorts, allowing her to incrementally tap into the dormant 90 percent of her mind and somehow develop the combined powers of Yoda in the “Star Wars” franchise, Mystique in the “X-Men” franchise, Neo from “The Matrix” franchise and John Nash in “A Beautiful Mind.”

The role of pseudo-human is nothing new to Johansson. As the voice of Samantha, the sentient supercomputer of “Her” (2013), and the transmogrifying alien seductress of “Under the Skin” (2013), she transitions easily into the film’s brilliant yet inhuman heroine. With each added percentage point of brainpower, she gradually loses the sensations of pain, fear and desire, transitioning from a bottle blonde to kick-ass Rain Man and finally into an Übermensch. It’s a condensed version of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) at 10 percent the nuance.

In his “Thus Spake Zarathustra,” Nietzsche declared that man is something to be surpassed, and that every leap forward to the Übermensch requires some form of murder. Besson takes this literally, having Lucy unabashedly kill dozens of drug thugs and innocent people on the road to meet the eminent neuroscientist Professor Norman (Freeman) before her time to live — reduced to 24 hours by the hyper-metabolic drugs — runs out. By reducing the film to car chases, shootouts and gore, Besson cannot tap into the premise’s creative potential.

What Lucy ultimately delivers to Professor Norman is unclear. As she nears 100 percent, the film drops acid. Lucy begins, to quote a bewildered audience member, “vomiting rainbows and oozing black slime.” Her mind envisages epic universe images straight out of a Nova special and surpasses the human realm on the way to what I assume is something like the Star Child from “2001.”

A voiceover of Lucy concludes the film, claiming that we should know what to do with life now. If we follow Lucy’s example, we learn not to get roped into Taiwanese drug cartels. Simply: don’t do drugs, kids! Besson wants to echo Kubrick and urge man to evolve through the pursuit of knowledge. But instead of monoliths, we get a blue bag of drugs. Instead of HAL, we get a clichéd drug gang. And instead of the Star Child, we get a vacuous text message from Lucy.

I’m not sure what percentage of his brain Besson was using while making this film, but it doesn’t take 100 percent of yours to know that there’s better filmic fare out there. Rent “Particle Fever.”


Rating: 5.8/10

“Lucy” is playing daily at 2:00 p.m., 4:30 p.m., 6:50 p.m. and 9:00 p.m.