There’s an audacity to Lucy. Luc Besson has the balls to make the stupidest possible movie about being smart, a sort of 2001 for people whose movie-going mantra is ‘turn off your brain.’ It’s the cinematic equivalent of a The Matrix-obsessed moron blowing lines of coke and talking to you about a human potential article he skimmed in Wired while a National Geographic special blares in the background. It’s not just that Lucy is dumb, Lucy is really agitated and excited to explain to you how its dumbness is in fact profundity. But it’s just really fucking stupid.
Lucy is so well made you almost don’t care. It’s so well made you also almost don’t care that it’s largely devoid of interesting action scenes. There’s a boring shoot out and an incoherent car chase, plus a couple of different scene where Scarlett Johansson’s Lucy walks down a hallway just like Neo at the end of The Matrix and, just like Neo at the end of The Matrix, does some wacky reality-altering shit. But mostly there are scenes where ScarJo is typing and scenes where she’s looking around like a bird and scenes where Morgan Freeman is giving lectures and saying such extraordinarily bullshit science stuff that you have to assume Luc Besson is just fucking with you.
The film’s central premise is based on that canard which says we only use about 10-15% of our brains (see here for a quick explanation of why that’s nonsense), but I don’t mind that. Radioactive spider bites don’t turn people into superheroes either - I’m willing to suspend my disbelief that a new designer drug expands Lucy’s brain ability, especially if it leads to fun. Lucy’s problem is that once your disbelief is suspended it gets straight up abused; as more and more of her brain is available Lucy just starts learning stuff out of thin air, suddenly becoming an expert in quantum physics and applied math, and then she can see through walls and impact radio waves halfway across the globe. None of it makes any sense within the context of the movie’s own rules, and none of it feels like an escalation. Her abilities are so vague and so godlike when she’s at 20% that I’m not even sure what’s different at 90%.
That stupidity is part of the film’s charm. Every scene I was on the edge of my seat: will the film get even dumber? Can it get even dumber? It did! Again and again it did! Besson seems unclear how basic things like computers and cell phones work, and at no point in the writing process did he bother to stop and do research. There’s a great scene on a plane where Lucy is typing away at light speed on two laptops and the movie never explains why she’s doing that or how these two laptops are possibly processing at that speed. It’s just, like, a signifier of how smart she is now that she’s using TWO laptops really fast.
That scene is a total coke scene, and Lucy is a total coke movie. Some people will say this is a stoner movie (“Whoa dude, what if we could use like ALL of our brain capacity? I bet we could do sweet telekinesis!”) or maybe an acid/shrooms movie (there’s a ton of bullshit about the meaning of life and being connected and stuff), but it’s a cocaine movie. When you do a good line of coke you feel like Lucy - invulnerable, the smartest motherfucker in the room, totally in control. I can absolutely believe someone who has just been hoovering up rail after rail would be convinced they have opened up more of their brain, and that they will corner you and never stop telling you about it.
Hanging out with someone who is coked up can be fun, and Lucy can be fun. But they can also be irritating, and by the end I found myself irritated with Lucy. As the movie gets into the home stretch it decides to be profound, and Lucy’s expanding brain takes her deep into the universe. All of a sudden we’re traveling to the beginning of time and learning the secrets of reality… while Korean gangsters and French police have a tedious shoot out in the hallway. If you think Besson named his protagonist randomly you’re wrong - he is very much explicitly referencing Lucy the hominid skeleton, although the movie makes the rather striking (and incorrect) claim that Lucy was the first human being. In fact the movie opens with a shot of Lucy drinking some water.
Lucy the hominid isn’t the only animal to which the film cuts away; at times Besson cuts to all sorts of Animal Planet b-roll, and it’s often clever. In the film’s opening, when ScarJo’s Lucy gets suckered into making a delivery to a Korean crime boss the scenes are intercut with big cats stalking prey. It works. But Besson loses interest in it, and by the end this conceit is completely dropped.
Scarlett Johansson again proves to be a charismatic lead actress, and the film makes excellent use of her generally flat affect. Once Lucy’s brain goes into hyperdrive she becomes emotionless and grows increasingly distant. There’s an exciting tinge of 50s B-movie here, those movies where a scientist would change himself first for the better and then discover he was becoming a monster, but Lucy isn’t interested in that. This is a Burning Man movie, and Lucy’s changes are all for the betterment of humanity. Still Johansson sells her burgeoning Dr. Manhattanhood with a subtle sadness that is far too nuanced for this film.
Lucy is fast paced and entertaining in its abject idiocy. There’s a charm to the way the film thinks it’s saying big things, and if it had more consistent action I think I’d even like it. There’s ambition here, and that’s admirable, and there’s filmmaking craft on display, but Lucy, like any good coke binge, ends up crashing and burning. All the on-the-nose allusions to 2001 in the world don’t make a movie actually smart or give it depth. This is what pretentiousness truly looks like - a dopey movie wearing a smarter film like an accessory.