Luc Besson’s Lucy is a certifiably insane film, and I more or less mean that in a positive way. An ambitiously huge step up for Besson – who technically delivers his best film in approximately a full decade here – it’s reaching for things it could never possibly hope to achieve, but it never stresses out over potentially missing the point entirely. It’s a complete mess in every sense of the word, but it’s never dull, boring, or meritless. It’s an incredibly stupid and idiotic film that’s trying to sound smart, but only succeeds about a quarter of the time. It’s like being locked in a room with Michael Bay after he’s just dropped acid and decided to remake Spike Jonze’s Her. It’s fucking weird and it isn’t good, but it’s definitely admirable.
The story wastes no time at all getting started. Within seconds the titular heroine – played by Scarlett Johnasson – is getting forced into delivering a briefcase to a bunch of shady Taiwanese gangsters by a guy she’s only dated for a week while staying in Taipei. She’s then forced into service as a drug mule carrying a new kind of club drug that she’s smuggling in her intestines. After a beating from a thug that tries to feel her up, one of the pouches ruptures and she gets all sorts of crazy powers, she no longer feels pain, becomes the smartest person alive, and she probably only has 24 hours left to live.
It’s impossible to keep up with wherever it is Besson (The Fifth Element, The Professional, writer of dozens of terrible and far inferior films) thinks he’s going from moment to moment. You could describe this films in thousands of different ways and not be wrong or right about it. Is this a braindead action picture? Hardcore revenge thriller? Mob movie? A remake or The Lawnmower Man or Transcendence? A film about theoretical evolutionary biology? A pregnancy metaphor since the drug she ingested is derived from hormones found in expectant mothers? A rape survivor metaphor? Is it making too many points? Does it have a point at all? Is the hero trying to save humanity or is she out to destroy it? It’s even a romance for all of five seconds before that’s eventually abandoned and never spoken of again. You could say all of this and more about Lucy because it’s about as incoherent as it is indecipherable. It’s the kind of film that critics and scholars could have a field day theorizing over it, but it probably isn’t worth trying to figure out in the first place.
Besson’s film is the one that shambles along between fights and action sequences with ludicrously highfalutin and impressively inaccurate scientific sounding speeches, delivered impressively by Johansson and Morgan Freemen (as a professor Lucy seeks out for help) with the straightest of faces. During one speech when Lucy tearfully tells her mother that she can now remember the taste of her breast milk in her mouth – all while she’s getting operated on with no anesthetic – it really sets in how great of an actress Johansson can be. Ditto Freeman, who gets to give several speeches about the human brain and evolutionary theories that get intercut with stock footage to make the film seem just a tad bit edgier. Both of them are playing roles they have played before – with Johansson playing a combination of literally EVERY character she has ever inhabited – but there’s no denying the perfect casting.
There’s a lot wrong with Lucy. “A lot” might be putting it mildly, especially since Besson has designed his film to create a dialogue on some level with the audience about intelligence, technology, evolution, and femininity. It’s best to avoid engaging with any of these points at all because none of them are developed enough to make any sense and they never come to any payoff. When the film takes its ending almost directly from Malick’s The Tree of Life (seriously, and it does it better and shockingly less laughably than Transcendence attempted to earlier this year), all bets are off. I couldn’t tell you what the hell happens in the last 15 minutes of this movie to save my life, nor do I particularly care to try and describe it. It would be impossible to do it justice.
And yet, I can’t say my interest in Lucy ever wavered. It hits the ground running and never looks back for a second. It’s 89 relentless minutes that get in and get out before wearing out its welcome. It’s designed to move so fast that making sense of it all would be futile, but that can also simultaneously trick the viewer into thinking it’s about something pretty deep. The action beats are strong and decidedly gory. There’s an undoubtedly strong central female character that’s getting the drop on buffoonish men. Even the film’s dollar store philosophizing comes with a sense of knowing tongue-in-cheek humour. Also, even though it centres around a Taiwanese gang and despite Besson’s almost uncomfortable levels of perhaps unintentional racism and xenophobia in his previous films, this one doesn’t suffer the same fate. It’s one of his stronger and more interesting films in spite of all the rampant stupidity. It’s certainly watchable at the very least despite it being almost unwatchable if you tried to explain it on paper.
The film makes the idiotically untrue claim that humans only use 10% of their brains (really we use all 100%, but since each section holds a different function realistically we only use some of that at any given moment), but it really should be making a different claim. While most of Besson’s films are 10% insane, this one is 100% insane. It’s almost avant garde in terms of its overall strangeness, and however uneven the final results are, at least it goes all in.