Loving a Dumb Movie: “Lucy” (Film Review)

starring: Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Min-sik Choi, Amr Waked, Analeigh Tipton

written and directed by: Luc Besson

MPAA: Rated R for strong violence, disturbing images, and sexuality

Let me set the scene for you. It was Monday night earlier this week, and I was sitting in a crowded movie theater at the San Francisco Metreon waiting for an advance screening of Lucy to begin. I was modestly excited to see it, since female-driven anything is usually preferable to male-driven everything else. So, despite the knee-shattering nightmare constituted by the Metreon’s close-quarter seats, plus a delayed start time due to the fairly standard late arrival of a high-profile guest (and a subsequent mixup with his designated seat), I was in good spirits. That is, of course, until I made the mistake of checking my work email on my phone.

I was immediately confronted by one of those anxiety attack-inducing scenarios in which something major seemed to have transpired in the five minutes since you’d last checked your inbox—something you’d previously sent an email clarifying/dispelling, only to realize that that email had gone completely unread by the relevant parties. Just the worst. I began frantically typing a response, fueled by rage that my email had been ignored (these are the great spiritual dilemmas of our times). The theater lights began to dim just as I was typing the final words, and not wanting to be that asshole with their lit-up phone screen visible to the whole theater, I hunched over it to complete my final frenzied taps before smashing the “Send” button and collapsing in an angry little stress-ball back into my seat, presumably shattering the kneecaps of the poor soul behind me.

Welp, so much for being able to enjoy this movie, I ranted to myself. I knew my obsessive mind well enough to know that I’d be getting into imaginary mental fights with the sender of that email for the rest of the night. But then, a magical thing happened: Lucy started. Right from the film’s very first brazenly WTF image (which drew incredulous laughter from my puzzled audience), I was completely transported into this high-wire daredevil act of ludicrously nonsensical, fantastically entertaining batshittery. From that moment onward, the film doesn’t pause for a breath until roughly the 30-minute mark, at which point I had a startling realization: I’d forgotten about my work email. It had actually slipped my mind. That never happens! I was sitting there in my bitter little stew, and then Luc Besson just effortlessly scooped me up out of it and into his impressively dumb but no less enjoyable guilty-pleasure fantasy world.

A glorious throwback to the alternately artful and garish Eurotrash thrillers of the ’80s and ’90s on which Besson made his name, Lucy stars Scarlett Johansson in a grave, confident performance as the title character, a young American woman traveling in Taipei. We don’t find out much about her, but based on her wardrobe and taste in men, we can assume she’s a low-budget bitch. When Lucy gets set up by her ill-chosen Taipei fling to deliver a suitcase of drugs to a Thai crimelord, she is knocked out—and awakens to discover that a bag of the drugs, a synthetic version of a hormone generated by pregnant women during the sixth week of pregnancy, has been sewn inside of her. Yes, Lucy has been Brokedown Palace‘d on a whole other level. Turned into a drug mule against her will, Lucy is dispatched to deliver the goods to an international destination. But when the bag ruptures inside of her and leaks into her bloodstream, it has the unexpected effect of transforming her body so that she’s able to access her full brain power rather than the meager percentage she’d been using.

Yes, this is junk science. Luc Besson knows this. (On those who’ve criticized this aspect of the film: “Do they think that I don’t know this? I work on this thing for nine years and they think that I don’t know it’s not true? Of course I know it’s not true!”) And, conveniently for Besson, since this isn’t a real thing, it gives him carte blanche to make up any kind of over-the-top superpower insanity he wants to give her while the audience just nods and murmurs, “Yes, science.” Besson is smartly exploiting a fundamental human insecurity: We all suspect that we’re not using the full potential of our brains, that we’re just letting them atrophy as we get older. So why not make a fabulously moronic sci-fi allegory out of it? Good for him!

Playing out like Run Lola Run meets The Tree of Life, Lucy follows its heroine as she goes on a twofold race against time that finds her both (A) avenging herself against the Thai crimelords who did this to her, and (B) seeking out Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman), an internationally renowned specialist in the field of untapped brain potential or whatever, so that she might be responsible with her newfound power and, you know, pay it forward. Because this isn’t just an action movie where Scarlett Johansson makes people fly around hallways just by lazily swatting her hand in their direction—it’s an extremely ambitious philosophical treatise on the meaning of life. I certainly can’t claim to know what the hell it’s saying, but it’s enjoyable all the same, like hanging out with a high, manic friend who’s raving about something epic in an unintelligible but delightful way.

People keep complaining about how Johansson hasn’t been given her own Black Widow movie yet, but frankly, I can’t imagine enjoying that theoretical star vehicle more than Lucy. Because really, what is Lucy if not the most extraordinarily perverse superhero origin story ever told? When I attempt to give Lucy a proper critical reading, I feel like I’m Nina Garcia giving a critique to a demented design on Project Runway. Is it bizarre, loopy, and incoherent? Yes. But it’s also audacious, bold, and self-assured, it actually has ideas (however half-baked), and there’s never a dull moment. So, take my word for it: Lucy will make you forget about your own shitty work emails.

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