One might argue that film-maker Luc Besson has only been using 10% of his brain for a number of years now, channelling his once formidable creative energies into action vehicles headed-up by aged stars and hack MTV stylists. I'm not sure “Lucy” and the brain deserve to be discussed in the same sentence, but at least here, Besson is applying serious effort, pummelling his audience with the sort of euro-pop imagery that made him a star in the 90s. It helps to have Scarlett Johansson continuing her strong run of form into a role that requires a performative flexibility few are liable to acknowledge. Owing much to her supremely unsettling work in “Under the Skin”, “Lucy requires Johansson to become a disconnected monster, whilst retaining remnants of a damaged, distant humanity. At a punchy 89 minutes this provocative cocktail proves alluring enough, helping to eradicate the sour idiocy promoted by the picture's incredibly unscientific premise.
“The average person uses 10% of their brain capacity. Imagine what she could do with 100%”
So reads the feature's tagline, proudly announcing its rubbishy conceit in the same brash voice as 2011's similarly pitched “Limitless”. Much like that movie, “Lucy” has all its pleasures rooted in splendid cinematography and a poster-boy (gal in this case) performance. Besson announces his intentions early, constructing sequences of dramatic narrative around counterpoints from the animal kingdom. As Lucy unknowingly walks into a danger, Besson splices the footage with images of a mouse coyly approaching a trap or of a cheetah circling a helpless gazelle. It may sound trite and obvious, but it's strangely atmospheric, placing the audience in a position of intellectual privilege, surpassing that of the temporarily vulnerable lead. Boy, does that change.
Johansson quickly amasses enough brain-power (through a chemical macguffin) to not only control her own body, but also those of others. This renders her virtually invincible in combat, which by the standard laws of storytelling should leave “Lucy” a bore. It isn't. Having Johansson kick-butt whilst mourning her evaporating humanity offers the picture a sort of primal magnetism, but plaudits must also be heard for the film's acrobatic action beats and sly gender commentary. If Lucy herself can't be destroyed, the film-maker places ciphers (including a stock academic portrayed by a stock Morgan Freeman) in harm's way. When that fails, Besson just blows stuff up with the determination of an artfully minded psychopath. The results might be numbing over the course of a longer work, but “Lucy is tight, under an hour and a half. In that space a viewer barely has time to disengage, especially with Besson tossing out set-pieces like a suicidal baker might bread to pigeons.
The narrative is thin, and the dramatic arcs riddled with potholes. But as “Lucy” progresses that becomes less and less of a problem. The feature actively analyses the gender of its protagonist, painting a world of predatory males, in which only the shrewdest of dames can hope to survive. Even the well-intentioned dudes are accidental chauvinists, Freeman's warm professor having to backtrack when he introduces Lucy as the world's first intelligent woman. It's a delightfully knowing moment, tucked far enough beneath the action that only perceptive viewers will bother to dig out the irony. But search you should. It's just one of the small, almost extraneous exchanges that display the innate intelligence in Besson's work.
I'm fairly confident the movie ends on a note of pure bullshit, but it'll probably take further viewings to eke out true dissatisfaction. On a big screen this overblown odyssey of violence and splendour carries along nicely, and even has the (lady) balls to do something interesting beneath its incessantly pulsating veneer.
A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2014