An Action Odyssey, by Tyler Smith
There is a scene in Jaws in which Quint is perplexed. He’s hooked the shark and thinks he has it figured out, but it is starting to behave unpredictably. Quint pauses for a moment and says, “I don’t know if he’s very smart or very dumb.” It’s a problem to which I can totally relate. As I watched Luc Besson’s Lucy, I found myself bouncing back and forth, never quite able to determine if the film is genuinely intelligent, but with some simplistic ideas, or just plain dumb, with the occasional moments of inspiration.
I finally landed somewhere in-between, deciding that the movie is, in fact, very simple in its philosophy, but incredibly ambitious in its exploration of this philosophy. And, frankly, ambition is something that is sorely lacking in most summer blockbusters these days (and maybe even most movies, in general), so I eventually came to view Lucy as a breath of fresh air.
The film starts with an idea, toys with it for a moment, then bets everything it owns on that idea. The story is about a fun-loving twenty-something girl named Lucy living in Taiwan who is kidnapped and used as a mule to smuggle drugs out of the country. But something goes wrong and this new drug finds its way into her bloodstream. The drug allows her to utilize more of her cerebral potential and her personality begins to change. Her awareness of the world around her creates in her a sense of distance, an inability to care about the immediate consequences of her actions.
And, yes, she also develops the ability to beat the living hell out of the men that kidnapped her.
As she quickly gains the power to manipulate matter with her thoughts, the film starts to become boring. We know that these low level thugs won’t be able to touch her, and we are shown over and over again scenes of people in awe over her abilities. She becomes too indestructible, not merely as a person, but as a character. Besson makes her so hyper-competent that the stakes start to fade.
Thankfully, though, Besson starts to leave behind the action cliches and takes a hard left turn into Tree of Life territory. As Lucy’s brain unlocks more and more abilities- including the manipulation of time itself- the film takes on a peaceful tone; almost meditative. Suddenly, the insignificance of the day-to-day lives of everybody else becomes something existentially depressing, and simultaneously beautiful.
This material is all handled very well. The action scenes are kinetic and exciting, which makes the moments of quiet in the second half of the film all the more powerful. The performances are uniformly strong. Scarlett Johansson manages to take a character that could have seemed one-note and finds the small moments of discovery within her and plays up the silent bewilderment and exhilaration. It’s almost as if whatever arc the character could be said to have comes completely from Johansson’s commitment to the role.
But that level of commitment is rampant in Lucy. Luc Besson has taken an idea that is, in many ways, inherently stupid and has taken it as far as it can go; literally to the ends of the Earth. Any conclusions that Besson comes to are laughably half-baked (to the extent that the last line of the film- which appears to encompass everything that we’ve learned- is essentially meaningless). The movie is mostly an exercise in exploration; Besson accepting his own premise and seeing what he can do with it.
It turns out he can do quite a lot with it. Some of it is eye-rollingly ridiculous, some of it is astonishingly pretentious, but it is also at times quite invigorating. And, at the very least, it is always intriguing, if not on a thematic level, than on an artistic one. It’s rare to see a film that starts so firmly in one genre and then completely abandons it. Imagine that the bus from Speed eventually went supersonic and soon came face-to-face with the Monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Would such a thing be jarring? Very much so. But it would not be easily forgotten.