After honey-voiced hardware in Her, a blank-faced alien stalker in Under Her Skin and a lycra-skinned super spy in Captain America: Winter Soldier, Scarlett Johansson continues her trend of playing characters who are Not Like Us. In Lucy she is the titular miniskirt-hugging party girl, who gets kidnapped by scowling Koreans and ingests a super-drug that transforms her into a reality-bending superwoman. It’s also another in a long line of unconventional and unstable heroines from Parisian writer-director Buc Lesson, who gained success with the memorably offbeat action of Nikita, Leon: The Professional and The Fifth Element, as well as spearheading the Liam Neeson renaissance with the gruff, workmanlike Taken series. Lucy is a jumbled intersection of these two authorial lines, a sleek, comic book-style riff on the “we only use 10% of our brain” myth that, like us cerebrally-challenged proles, itself fails to live up to its full potential.
In the lively opening, a hungover Lucy is forced to deliver a package for a smarmy man she met the night before (the great Pilou Asbaek, Borgen star and Eurovision host), clad in the untrustworthy attire of neon sunglasses and a cheap cowboy hat. Her new acquaintance gets a bullet and she gets strong-armed into the hands of crime boss Mr. Jang (Choi Min-Sik), where she is drugged and has a pouch of the experimental CPH4 sewn into her abdomen. But before the drug mule-ing can get going, a hothead goon boots her in the gut and accidentally releases the drug into her system. Like a plugged-in Neo, she’s suddenly gifted with telekinesis, telepathy, super-intelligence and scissor-kicking moves, breaks free and goes on a quest for revenge and self-knowledge. She’s unlocking more and more of her brain’s hidden powers and it’s killing her, her progress into god-status punctuated by regular, booming percentage updates.
The 10 percent stuff may be hokey pseudo-science, but it builds a vital engine of escalation into the film’s structure. As Lucy becomes more powerful, the film gets loopier and more formally experimental, but the pacing of this escalation feels off. Lucy mutates almost instantaneously from a naive girl into a cold-blooded robot, a more casual facsimile of her alienated strangeness in Under Her Skin. What little sense of her character the film establishes up front is quickly obliterated: Lucy does not seem that frightened, amused or excited about her new, wild abilities. The script plays up the melancholy of her journey past the ‘obstacles’ of human feeling into non-personhood, but without giving us a solid person to begin with the straining at loss doesn’t really translate. The structure also feels lopsided, frontloading Lucy’s powers in a way which hinders later possibilities of giddy discovery. Despite the irresistibly pulpy ‘what if’ conceit, there’s a disappointing lack of payoff. The conclusion teases the prospect of Lucy reaching 100 percent power, but fails to hit the hyperbolic cathartic notes of something like Akira or the more recent Chronicle, which did a better job of bringing a super-charged civilian to an emotionally spectacular finale.
The film does too much telling and not enough showing. Morgan Freeman is on hand as Professor Norman, a neuroscience expert whose lecturing on brain capacity is conveniently if redundantly shoehorned in to frame Lucy’s exploits. It’s the sort of information that could be conveyed in a few lines. Indeed, the script tends to get bogged down in clunky jargon-talk: it often reads like someone searched for ‘SCIENCE’ on Wikipedia and started pasting in random results. The voiceover narration and the cutaways to Cosmos and Animal Planet footage feel like they’re doing work that should be done by the story itself, awkwardly flagging up ideas about evolution, subjectivity and physics that needed to be threaded in and through the action beats.
Lucy is bonkers for sure, and it’s mostly fun, but it’s never really bonkers enough. Despite some Kurbrickian and Malickian visual asides, the madness is mostly contained in and clipped by a visually flat Eurotrash plot, with Boulevard car chases and anonymous, expendable henchmen. Squint and it could be another Taken. Lucy is an atom bomb that goes off like a flash grenade. Conor Smyth