Saturday, July 26, 2014

"Lucy" (2014)

Starring Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman and Choi Min-sik
Written and directed by Luc Besson
Rated PG-13 - Violence, language
Running Time: 89 Minutes

Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) is an American in Taipei who is forced by her boyfriend to deliver a briefcase to a man named Jang (Choi Min-sik). Inside this briefcase is a new synthetic drug that Jang's organization wants to smuggle to various countries around the world. To that end, they have kidnapped several other young people, cut them open and stuffed packets of this drug into their bellies and sent them on their way - unwilling drug mules, and they've decided Lucy will play that role, too.

But when Lucy denies the sexual advances of one of Jang's men, he kicks her in the stomach, rupturing the pouch and pouring the drug into her bloodstream. Amazingly, instead of killing her it begins to transform her. As the drug allows her to access more and more of her brain's unknown capacities, she gains more knowledge and otherworldly powers to match. Teaming up with a French police captain, Del Rio (Amr Waked) and a kindly professor of neuroscience named Samuel Norman (Morgan Freeman), Lucy attempts to understand her transformation long enough to dismantle Jang's drug-smuggling operation and stop her body from breaking down.

"Lucy" is a rather confounding film. It has interesting ideas, but the science it asks us to believe at its core is nonsense. It has action sequences that are visually clever, but almost entirely lacking in suspense. It wants us to consider the worth of human existence as a whole, but can't present a single human character worth caring about or to whom we can easily relate. Luckily, "Lucy" breezes by at a slim 89 minutes.

Scarlett Johansson anchors the movie in the sense that she's pretty much in every scene. We follow her from the moment she steps through the hotel doors to deliver the briefcase to the final scenes. The film obviously wants us to believe that as Lucy grows more powerful and godlike, her humanity slips away - indeed, this is referenced in a couple different ways in the dialogue. The problem is that Johansson's performance doesn't change gradually, it turns on a dime right after she's exposed to the drug. Save for one well-acted confession of love to her mother, Johansson becomes cold and aloof for the rest of the film, utterly confident in her still-increasing abilities. She moves calmly through each action sequence, and it just becomes hard to care when the main character is not only totally invincible, but never really faces any actual obstacles to overcome.

This is a complaint often leveled at Superman or Wonder Woman, that these characters aren't relatable because they're so powerful. This is why writers always attempt to give Superman moral choices to make, or an emotional quandary. A recurring theme in both "Superman Returns" and "Man of Steel" is Superman's struggle to reconcile loyalty to both Krypton and the people of Earth - to which society does he truly belong? These are interesting questions that we ask about Superman, and we can delve into his character by looking at him as the ultimate immigrant and reach parallels to discuss.

But with Lucy, there's none of that. She makes reference to needing Del Rio as a "reminder," but of what? She drags him along through several action sequences where she has no consideration for the destruction around her or the deaths or injuries she's causing to innocent bystanders. Del Rio himself notes that he's "freaked out" by the things she can do, but he's also oddly willing to go along with her and let her do whatever she pleases. And for all the time they spend together in the film's second half, it feels like they barely have an entire conversation. Lucy's war against Jang's drug operation feels absurdly small-scale compared to the evolutionary changes she's undergoing. It almost feels like there are two movies at war with each other here.

Luc Besson directs, and as usual, that means "Lucy" is a movie that looks great and flows well. It's got an odd sense of humor, sometimes using the percentage count of Lucy's brain as emphasis, or inserting nature footage to make a point (or a punchline). The images he constructs are interesting to look at; each scene in the film looks like it should belong to a better one, but since the script is so emotionally hollow all you can really do is appreciate the images.

The ideas at the center of "Lucy" are worth delving into. The film's time-warping climax is more intriguing that it is thrilling. And that's really something I can say about "Lucy" as a whole - it feels like wasted potential, but it looks good doing it.

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