Let’s get the obvious stuff out of the way: Lucy isn’t science fiction. It’s science foolishness. It relies on one of the most egregious misstatements of scientific fact—that human beings only use ten percent of their brainpower—as the linchpin for a movie so enjoyably bonkers that in the end it doesn’t really matter how dumb its core premise is. This movie is the cinematic incarnation of the old cliché, “Dance like nobody’s watching.” This one breakdances.
The premise is simple; what becomes derived from that premise, not so simple. Lucy (Scarlett Johannson), a woman living and studying in Taiwan, gets tricked by her sleazy boyfriend into delivering a case to some Korean mobster types led by the sinister Mr. Jang (an underused Choi Min-sik, the original Oldboy). The case contains some new, experimental drug soon to be flooding the streets. She's just won the drug-mule lottery, and so a terrified Lucy gets to have a packet of the stuff sewn into her guts. At one point she’s manhandled by one of her minders, and the packet bursts over and begins leaking. The drug turns Lucy into, well, super-Lucy.
How this happens is where the movie’s reservoir of total absurdity lies. As Lucy’s troubles mount, a professor (Morgan Freeman) lectures a Paris audience about the possibility of brainpower: What would happen if we were able to access the full reserves of our brain? (Never mind that the reason we can’t do this is because the vast majority of our brain’s power is reserved for things like autonomous functions, but hey.) As the drug takes effect, the good professor’s theories about brainpower all start being proven true one by one, and Lucy transforms into a speed-reading, two-gun-shooting, pain-ignoring superhuman. “Superhuman”, in this case, also means “inhuman”: When her first shootout with thugs ends with a bullet lodging in her shoulder, she barges into an operating room and shoots the patient on the table as a way to get the doctor’s attention. The patient? “The tumor had already invaded his spine,” she says. She’d glanced at his X-rays, you see.
This is the part of the film that works best, when it’s depicting the contrast between what Lucy was and what she’s turning into. For at least half its running time, Besson and Johannson both do a fine job of showing Lucy’s falling-away from humanity; we get broad hints of how being a 100%-er is something that only sounds good on paper, more tragedy than transcendence. When she stops in the middle of the surgery to call her mother and whisper to her, “I remember the taste of your milk in my mouth,” it’s haunting stuff.
But the movie stops short of making the most of this material. I’m torn between that being because it only meant to play so safe, or didn’t know how to do anything beyond that. The second half of the film is an endless succession of action-movie absurdities, where Superlucy’s ever-expanding brainpower allows her to levitate gangsters with her mind, wield a gun in each fist, and baffle a French cop who's drawn into the middle of her machinations. In other words, she turns into the kind of absurd action superhero that director Luc Besson put at the center of many of his other films. I want to say that the film is a commentary on that kind of thing, the implication being that such heroes are really more inhuman than anything else (think about how many times we blithely accept action-movies heroes shrugging off a bullet)—but that gives the movie more credit than it deserves.
Things fall through most completely in the last act, where the rage-against-the-dying-of-the-light aspect of Lucy’s story loses out to an action-shootout climax. It’s at the very least splashily depicted, with Lucy absorbed in a kind of 2001-style light-trip while real-world death literally creeps up behind her. But the real meaning of what it’s about is not given the kind of weight it ought to have, and so the conclusion feels more of a wink-wink than a nod. It doesn’t quite amount to the same brilliantly mad statement of purpose that one might see in something like Takashi Miike’s Izo or Zebraman.
Still, I give Besson credit for not wimping out in one key respect. I was naïve enough to think the movie would lose its juice along the way and have us believe the whole thing was Lucy’s hallucination as she lay dying on the floor somewhere, Jacob’s Ladder-style. But the movie goes aggressively out of its way not to support any such reading. It’s in for the long-haul crazy. And given how much computer- and reality-hacking Lucy herself does in this film, it’s no exaggeration to call this film Johannsen’s dry run as Motoko Kusanagi for the upcoming Ghost in the Shell live-action film. Especially in the light of the movie’s ending, which maintains the straightest of faces while it swan-dives into the deep end of utter head-trip lunacy.
For all the complaints I could lodge about what it doesn’t do, or how it goes about its business, I’d still rather see one Lucy then any ten Transformers. Audacity gets you further than you might think.