The critical reaction to Lucy has been mixed—somewhat surprisingly, Luc Besson's action thriller (which I thoroughly enjoyed) is currently tracking below Brett Ratner's Hercules (which was not even screened for critics) on Rotten Tomatoes. The biggest problem might lie in its marketing—Lucy is all about Scarlett Johansson's titular heroine increasing her brain-power ten-fold. Lucy is also an extremely wacky, zippy action thriller that bats around a lot of big concepts without going too deep, which might just be a roundabout way of calling it dumb.
A lot of reviews certainly seem to think so. Time Out's Keith Uhlich said the film spends way too much time on "Z-grade intellectual components" which left him "feeling shorn of grey matter." Richard Roeper sniped "the smarter Lucy gets, the dumber Lucy gets." Amy Nicholson of the Village Voice said the movie "feigns at depth" filled with technical mumbo-jumbo to justify its nonsensical plot turns. Plenty of critics (including myself) made sure to let the audience know that the whole "you only use 10 percent of your brain" thing is an urban myth, in case you were mistaking this sci-fi action epic for reality.
Lucy is certainly guilty of some half-assed intellectual posturing to cover its tracks. Early on in the movie, Morgan Freeman delivers a ponderous university lecture so light on facts and basic evidence about the whole "cerebral capacity" concept, just to give the audience some grounding for the madness that will unfold as Lucy's brain blasts towards the 100% mark. Later on in the movie, there's a lot of pontificating on the nature of perception and reality: if we're all just cells for Lucy to control, what distinguishes us as human at all?
I was thrilled to see Besson throw such grand ideas around right along with the gun-blazing action, chase sequences, and daffy comedy. Lucy is certainly a film you have to surrender to, but is it really much dumber than most of this summer's best-reviewed Hollywood blockbusters? Dawn of the Planet of the Apes had the weight of a serious treatise, but still needed the audience to buy into thin characterization (all of the human characters) and a massive plot contrivance (Koba's convoluted method of staging a coup). Edge of Tomorrow's ending barely made sense within its own nutty internal logic. Even the beloved Snowpiercer (note: these are all movies I really liked) is packed with inexplicable ludicrousness and has one action sequence that flagrantly flaunts basic laws of wind resistance (the train-window shootout).
Did it just get a pass from viewers because it slows down at the end for some monologues about deeper metaphorical themes, whereas Lucy speeds up and doubles down on the crazy? So what if Lucy coasts by on claptrap? It has ten times the energy and verve of so much of the bloated crap Hollywood shovels at us. Plenty of critics, of course, recognize this: David Edelstein of New York called it an "outlandishly entertaining mixture of high silliness and high style," and Joe Morgenstern in the Wall Street Journal praised it as "gleefully bold, visually adventurous, often funny, strikingly concise."
While the reaction to Hercules generally seems to be "hey, this movie isn't as bad as we all thought!", Lucy is much more polarizing, perhaps best summed-up by the reaction to Besson's use of stock footage in the first half (a mouse approaching a trap; a cheetah stalking its prey) to drive home fairly obvious points. Critics who loved the movie largely found this a delightful example of Besson's self-awareness. Those who hated the film took it as patronizingly stupid.
Mixed reviews or no, Lucy seems poised to capture the #1 spot at the box office this week, no mean feat given that it's a European R-rated action movie opening against a PG-13 epic with a more proven action star in The Rock. She's obviously had supporting roles in Marvel blockbusters but ScarJo has never opened a blockbuster as an above-the-title star—her one real attempt, The Island, was a flop in 2005. If tracking holds, Lucy will solidify this new phase in Johansson's career as a marquee name. Polarized critics just come with the territory.