There is something almost profound at play when it comes to the stupidity at the core of Luc Besson’s new film Lucy. Yet another of Besson’s outsized action spectacles, the film stars Scarlett Johansson as its titular heroine. Forced into a shady drug deal by her unscrupulous boyfriend, Lucy soon finds herself in a dingy holding cell in Taipei with a dangerous and unstable new drug sewn into her stomach, forced into servitude as a drug mule by a Korean kingpin (Choi Min-sik of Oldboy, chewing all the scenery). When a guard attacks her and ruptures the bag in her intestines, the drugs allow her to access increasing real estate of her brain (the entire film is based on the “humans only use 10% of their brain” fallacy), unlocking increasingly fantastical and improbable superpowers. The “science” (if you can even call it that) is pure, uncut bunk, so Besson makes sure to class up the joint by bringing in Morgan Freeman as a neuro-scientist with a Ph.D. in exposition to give Lucy some guidance and the vague reflection of a goal toward which she can work.
The first ten minutes or so of Lucy are quite a sight to behold. Besson opens the film in prehistoric times, pointedly linking up Johansson to the “first human” (another bit of inaccuracy) colloquially known as Lucy. Once he brings things back to modern times, Johansson is in full on Don Jon Jersey Shore mode, with her snapping gum and leopard prints and ignorance. Her entrapment at the hands of the Korean drug lords is cross cut with footage of cheetahs hunting a gazelle, with the big cats sinking their teeth in as the hotel door closes. It is a visual metaphor made literal, a wild gambit that could spell death for a lesser filmmaker. But Besson is nothing if not a director of unparalleled visual accomplishment, and the film is a feast for the eyes throughout its punchy 88 minutes. As Lucy’s powers grow, her window into the world changes and the execution of these concepts is strong. Bodies pulse with the see-through biology of life. Strands of light shoot up into the heavens, each a line of communication, a phone call, a text message. And Lucy can control it all.
What is unfortunate is that by the time the credits roll on this story, it is clear that visual acuity is all Lucy has going for it. While basing a pulse-pounding action film on a flimsy premise is not automatically a negative, the glee with which Besson takes the absurdity of it all reaches near transgressive levels. The pacing and tone are all over the place, with the whimsy of the first act shunted to the side in favor of detached, almost somber second and third acts. Such an approach does the film no good, as there is nothing to distract from the mess that is the central conceit. Rules do not apply in any demonstrable manner in this world, as she manages to acquire powers in the most arbitrary and convenient fashion, without ever stopping to concern itself with making Lucy interesting or sympathetic. Morgan Freeman and Choi Min-Sik do their best to scrape the bottom of the barrel for the mildest semblance of resonance, but the former is saddled with horrifyingly dull expository speeches and the latter is about as generic a black hat as there can be. This is uniformly a tremendous waste of talent.
The hits do not stop there, though. Lazy filmmaking abounds. The cross cutting puns of the first ten minutes are dropped unceremoniously after the first scene. Lucy becomes too strong too quickly, thus effectively robbing the film of any possibility for stakes with meaning. It is impossible to believe she could ever be in peril after about ten seconds of interaction with the drug. She has the Superman problem, and Besson does not bother to establish her Kryptonite. Without bodily danger to drive empathy toward Lucy, all that remains to latch onto is her goal, which amounts to a touch of vengeance (something of which she quickly becomes bored) followed by a vague need to collect all the world’s knowledge for no particular reason of any note. This second goal is used as a springboard to leap into some half-baked armchair philosophizing and allusions to 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Tree of Life, but with a lot more guns. Its last fifteen minutes presents another awkward tonal shift into what it hopes will be some deep resonance, but it comes off as a giant cosmic joke. It is possible Besson intended this. However, in the moment, it never feels that way. Therein lies the problem. No matter what Besson’s intent may be, the film feels unnaturally awkward, like a poorly designed satire or an overly serious attempt at metaphysics. Neither possibility works on its own merit.
Luc Besson and crew score points for Lucy’s ambitious visual wizardry and the silliness of its first act. They lose all of those points and then some for its tonally inconsistent, lazy and generally insulting second and third acts full of characters it is impossible to care about attempting to accomplish goals that are vaguely defined at best. It is not too much to ask for an action movie that claims a brain to actually have one when it counts. Besson himself has shown the capability in the past. The Fifth Element was in many ways just as preposterous as Lucy, but it at least had stakes. La Femme Nikita and The Professional had stakes. There are no stakes to be found in Lucy. Besson’s ideas have become bigger, but they are in service of something hollow and altogether uninteresting. It is a cinematic Icarus, complete with paper wings where even wax would be too good for it.