Here we have another film that is lazily named after the main character which is a pet hate of mine (see here.) I can forgive it on this occasion though as it is the only aspect of the film that shows any lack of imagination.
There are two cinematic forces coming together here to good effect. The first is writer/director/producer Luc Besson and the other is actor/singer/Sodastream endorser Scarlett Johansson.
Let’s start with the Frenchman. Back in my university days, around the year 19mumblemumble, Luc Besson was considered a superstar director. This was the man who had already given us Subway, The Big Blue and Nikita and then he delivered his masterwork Léon. Things got out of control a little with The Fifth Element but the guy was a major player.
Then around the time he finished Joan of Arc he stopped stringing one of the strings to his bow and has spent most of the last fifteen years purely as a screenwriter and producer. In this guise he has given the world, among other things, the Taxi, Transporter and Taken series (it seems he has something for car chases and the letter T).
He has directed a few films in this time, most notably The Lady about political prisoner/Nobel Peace Prize and Congressional Gold Medal winner/future President of Burma Aung San Suu Kyi. He also did an adaptation of Gallic comic book The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec, which I recommend you search out. (Imagine a cross between Indiana Jones and Grace Kelly. I know, you’re sold aren’t you?)
Now though Besson is back calling the shots and as ever is heavily focussed on visuals. He has always ensured his films have the story to support the pretty images and Lucy is the perfect example of this aesthetic. There are some incredible effects sequences recalling everything from 2001 to The Exorcist.
Before seeing Lucy I described it as a cross between Limitless, in which Bradley Cooper pops pills that allow him to access higher brain functions, and the 1996 John Travolta film Phenomenon where the protagonist suddenly becomes a genius with telekinetic powers after seeing some flashing lights in the sky. Certainly there are elements in common with these two films as Johansson ingests a nootropic drug, accesses higher and higher percentages of her cerebrum and develops superpowers but actually it takes its ideas much further. By comparison the reach of Limitless is limited and the scope of Phenomenon is nominal. This girl’s got powers that make the Jedi look like the Great Soprendo.
They say we only use 10% of our brains (actually they don’t say that anymore but clearly no one told Besson). Lucy is an involuntary drug mule and when the bag stitched inside her splits that 10% goes to 20. Cue super fighting skills and mega smarts. At 30% its suppression of pain and mind powers and so on and so forth. By 50% she has total control of her environment at an atomic level and she’s still only half way through. You’ve got to admire where Besson is prepared to take it as another director may have felt shackled by some sense of comprehensible logic. Seriously, if you think the X-Men’s abilities contradict every law of biology and physics then you’ve not seen anything yet. For a film that’s all about using your brain it doesn’t really require its audience to do so but it is quite a lot of fun.
Interestingly as Lucy approaches a human being’s full potential she loses more and more of her humanity and that fact that you continue to root for her is down to the principal player.
Scarlett Johansson has had a number of parts this year examining this dichotomy between humanity and selfish passionless efficiency. First off she played the operating system in Spike Jonze’s Her, a ‘character’ that seemed real but was artificial and totally focussed on functionality. Then there was her excellent performance in Under the Skin as the alien who imploded when a sense of humanity began to pervade. You could even argue that there are elements of this in her portrayal of Captain America: The Winter Soldier’s Black Widow, the ruthless unhesitant assassin who makes jokes about 80s sci-fi movies.
This last role, which she has now played across three movies, seems to be setting her up as successor to Angelina Jolie as Hollywood’s leading female action star and Lucy supports this. Johansson has something else though, something grounded about her screen persona that will always make her just that little bit more believable in these exaggerated roles. She shows you the real woman behind the Amazonian in a way that the steely Jolie has never quite managed.
There were rumours that Jolie was originally up to play Lucy but apparently, while she was in discussions with Besson, it was for a different project. Nonetheless it is tempting to see this film as some kind of handing over of the baton as Jolie moves away from these parts and turns increasingly toward directing. Lucy has had the third highest opening box office of any female led action film after the Angelina Jolie movies Wanted and Tomb Raider so at the very least she is snapping at those heels.
Lucy is preposterous, of course, but it is ambitious, confident and uncompromising in a way that gets you on its side. It isn’t as strong as many of the Summer’s other blockbusters like Edge of Tomorrow, X-Men or Guardians of the Galaxy but its a perfectly good way to close the season for another year.
Is this one for the kids?
No, rated 15, the film is not made with a younger audience in mind which could be another sign of its refusal to compromise. Many directors may have toned it down for the increased audience but Besson’s story works with the blood splatters, stabbings and disintegrations.
The Ripley Factor:
On the one hand Lucy presents us with a strong female who is able to fight off all aggressors but on the other hand it shows a callous entity unconcerned with the narrow mundanity of normal human existence. Mixed in terms of her being a role model then.
It is good that the part has gone to a woman when the character could easily have been a man and other than some shots of her in her bra she isn’t overly objectified.