I would say that you should check your brain at the door before going into the theater to thoroughly enjoy Lucy, but that’s not quite right. You should check out your brain, have it scrubbed with the magic blue crystals Scarlett Johansson’s titular character accidentally ingests via unwanted surgery, and then pop it back into your skull. All the better to enjoy Luc Besson’s raving madman of a Hollywood action flick, which begins as your typical Asian tourism panic movie and ends with a cracked-out mental journey through time, space, and every plane of existence.
Lucy’s promotion has focused on the whole “you only use 10% of your brain” gimmick. It’s easily-disproved claptrap that somehow remains an agreed-on fact in the general consciousness, but the science (or lack thereof) behind it doesn’t really matter. Besson’s (who wrote and directed) point is just that when Lucy, in Taiwan for reasons unclear and mixed up with a dodgy new boyfriend, gets a bag of synthetic drugs sewn into her intestines that quickly starts to leak, her brain-power doubles, and doubles again, and again. Morgan Freeman is there as a professor to dispense nonsensical-sounding knowledge about what just might happen in this scenario: first she can control every cell in her body, then in everyone else’s, then … who knows?
Besson’s chief advantage throughout his career has been his ability to work outside of the Hollywood system while commanding budgets that suggest otherwise. His 1997 masterpiece (don’t fight me on this) The Fifth Element had all the hallmarks of a big-budget American sci-fi epic, down to the cast, but thrown through a lunatic funhouse mirror. Besson’s subsequent work as a director, aside from last year’s forgotten mob comedy The Family, has tended towards the European, but with Lucy we finally have a spiritual successor. But while The Fifth Element basically retained the “hero saves the day” structure audiences would expect, Lucy spins into even wilder directions for its final act, where our heroine’s brain-power starts creeping towards triple digits.
That’s not to say Lucy is without more conventional action thrills, something Besson has had a handle on since he began his career. There’s a fantastic car chase headed against the traffic through the narrow lanes of Paris. Johansson, who is already a bona-fide action star thanks to her work as the Black Widow in the Marvel universe, kicks, shoots and stabs her assailants (all belonging to some unspecified Korean mob led by Choi Min-sik, best known as the lead of Oldboy) with aplomb. Besson’s pacing is slightly off—for an 89-minute movie, there’s a lot of time given over to the introductory business in Taiwan before Lucy’s brain starts firing in all kinds of different directions.
But once Lucy’s intestinal smuggling drug pouch breaks open (triggered by an assault by one of her prison guards), Besson lets loose with his imagination. Lucy at first seems like it might play out as a revenge thriller, similar to the Besson-produced Taken, with our heroine going on a super-powered rampage against the men that did such horrible things to her. And sure, there’s a few minutes of that, but the more powerful her brain gets, the less these things start to matter. Johansson is saddled with a character who has to become more and more robotic very quickly indeed, which could rob her of sympathy if she hadn’t earned so much from the audience in the first 20 minutes.
There’s a crucial moment fairly early on where she calls her mother to say she loves her, but the dialogue seems a little stiff and forced. It’s not weak writing—Lucy has just realized that soon she’ll be so beyond such simple one-to-one emotion, and at the same time she’s being overwhelmed by all of her memories of her life flooding her brain at once. That’s when I started to realize just how big Besson was going to go with this concept, and why it’s a blessing that he made this film with his European donors and without any Hollywood studio executives making notes demanding plausibility, or plodding scenes to explain Lucy’s evolving motivations.
The film’s wonderful final act is both difficult to articulate (literally, it’d be hard to describe in plain words just what goes on) and impossible to spoil, but still, go see it for yourself. It’s delightful, at times half-baked madness, but exactly the kind of blockbuster filmmaking I want to see more of: shooting for the moon, and all the wonderful failures and successes that come with that. There are so many easy shots one could take at Lucy for its occasionally clunky pacing or its ludicrous sci-fi mumbo-jumbo, but instead, just let it grab you by the noodle and zap you into its whacked-out vision of human existence. You’ll feel much better for it, I promise.