Do we want filmmakers trying to inject more science into superhero stories? Not if they’re going to do it like this. We know that being bitten by a mutated/radioactive spider won’t actually turn you into Spider-Man, but it’s easy to accept in the fantasy world of cinema. Lucy on the other hand, really tries to give off the impression that its superpower origin story is based in real science. However the whole concept it takes from, that humans “only use 10% of our brains” is a ridiculous urban legend that’s been debunked for decades. Seriously, it would take less than a minute of research to learn that it was nonsense; Wikipedia has an article concisely explaining that it’s a myth, and yet it continues to prevail. 2011’s Limitless used a similar conceit, but in that it just suggested that accessing more of your brain would make you a better and more effective version of yourself, and didn’t attempt to hammer home that it was scientific. Lucy on the other hand, shamelessly attempts to say that using more of your brain would give you mind-bending superpowers.
The entire first act of the film detailing Lucy’s (Scarlett Johansson) origin is intercut with scenes of supposedly respected Professor Samuel Norman (Morgan Freeman, whose casting doubtless contributes) delivering a lecture to a packed university hall. In this he explains the 10% rubbish as students listen attentively as if they’ve never heard this before, and they don’t really question him, even when he spouts off even more obvious bullshit like “dolphins use 20% of their brains and that’s why they have sonar”. No Morgan, it isn’t. I don’t want to just sound like a smartarse but when films present themselves in this manner it can negatively affect perceptions of science, I did in fact have a heated conversation with someone after seeing this film who was convinced the 10% crap was true, a belief reinforced by watching Lucy.
Anyway, science-rant over, on to the other part of Lucy’s opening act, which functions rather well. We’re introduced to the title character in Taipei during a briskly efficient scene in which she’s convinced by her new boyfriend to deliver a package for him to some gangsters. It doesn’t go as planned, and soon she’s been captured and used as a drug mule for a new synthetic drug. Director Luc Besson intercuts all these moments with wildlife footage of stalking predators hunting vulnerable prey which was kinda neat but just reminded me of Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, which used a similar technique for more comedic reasons.
Her captors aren’t the smartest bunch though, and before she’s even got on the plane they subject her to a beating which damages the drug pouch, causing it to leak out inside her. One thing I can say for Lucy is that it doesn’t waste any time. Almost immediately she escapes and takes out the bad guys. It’s interesting that given the apparent superhero set-up of Lucy, she never has any trouble killing anyone who stands in her way. While this leads to some fun moments, there’s also a very troubling exchange in which she shoots a presumably innocent taxi driver for being unable to speak English (they are in Taiwan after all).
Lucy presents a bit of a conundrum for representation in film in general. It’s undoubtedly feminist, giving us an all-too-rare female led action/superhero movie, something quite relevant in today’s climate when Marvel keep dodging the question of why they won’t make a female-led film given all their clout, and when DC are too timid to just give Wonder Woman her own movie. However, it’s portrayal of East Asians is something else (even though they’re in Taiwan most are Korean). There’s no getting around it, every East Asian in this film is a bad guy, and every bad guy is East Asian (with the exception of one smarmy British associate).
It’s rather baffling as to why Korean superstar Choi Min-sik, one of his country’s most respected actors, would take on this film given how selective he usually is. Aside from his introductory scene it’s a completely thankless one-note foreign villain role.
Luc Besson’s written and produced tons of action movies in the last few years but hasn’t really directed one in a very long time. Here he manages to deliver some of the better action sequences his production house has showcased in a while, with a chaotic corridor shootout towards the end.
Lucy adopts the Dr. Manhattan idea that as a person becomes more and more superhuman, they gradually lose their humanity. Like everything in this film, she doesn’t take long to get there. As she attains higher and higher levels (the percentages appear on the screen) the film goes in directions that are quite absurd, often featuring an abundance of ugly CGI. It easy to make jokes about Lucy (the film) getting stupider as it chronicles a character supposedly getting smarter bit I will say that it didn’t go quite the way I expected it to. It climaxes with a sequence tying in the entire history of humanity. It’s a clumsy attempt to add depth to this silly action film, but is memorably audacious.