Life was given to us a billion years ago. What have we done with it?
Luc Besson is unique. He is a French action Film writer-director-producer. His films are slick, tough, and thoroughly European. He is also almost certainly the most prolific human in film. In 1997, he wrote and directed The Fifth Element (1997). Since then, he has written 36 scripts or stories, directed nine, and produced about 100 (though IMDb does include a lot of uncredited producer titles). Not unlike Woody Allen, the break-neck speed of his production suggests there isn’t a lot of time for second drafts and it can show. Then a movie like Lucy (2014) comes along and, while rough-hewn and requiring some limberness of credulity, shows the man at his apex. And it’s wild.
Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) is a student in Taipei and has been dating this guy named Richard (Pilou Asbæk). Richard needs to drop off a locked briefcase for a certain Mr. Jang (Min-sik Choi), but, for reasons undiscovered, would rather not do so himself. Whatever his reason, it was well-founded, since Lucy finds herself in a hotel room with more than its fair share of dead people and sharply dressed Taiwanese gangsters, including the blood-drenched Mr. Jang. The briefcase, it turns out, contains four bags of a special drug, CPH-4 if that means anything to you, and these bags will be muled through Europe via four less-than-consenting individuals, including Lucy, in their “lower tummy”.
On her way to the airport, Lucy gets kicked rather severely in that exact local by a Taiwanese ruffian, causing the bag to tear and let loose the CPH-4. This, in turn, causes Lucy to expand the portion of her brain in continuous use. Her powers expand from extreme cleverness, through Jedi mindtrick level, and onto full-fledged Neo. Her first point of contact is Prof. Norman (Morgan Freeman), an academic currently investigating the reaches of the human brain–though he can imagine no further than 20% of capacity. Lucy quickly realizes that this ‘power’ comes at the cost of quick and inevitable destruction, requiring the assembly of the remaining CPH-4 to take her far enough to…something. For that, she gets the help of French Capt. del Rio (Amr Waked), to find and detain the remaining mules. But don’t forget about Mr. Jang, he’s not going to let his magic drug be taken that easily.
Besson has a playful touch. It’s often that playfulness that pushes his films into a level of camp that cannot be taken seriously. In Lucy, it manifests itself in a series of inter-cut montages that provide a metaphor for the events in the story. It isn’t a new device, but it definitely belongs entirely to comedy. Yet the film dives equally as deep as suddenly into moments that are touching or monologues that are unapologetically philosophical. Besson stands astride the fulcrum of a seesaw and dips from one side to the other without warning. By all accounts, this should destroy any coherence in tone and make the film unenjoyable, but if you can stay on Besson’s wavelength, it’s a pleasure to watch.
That is not to say the film is technically excellent. Besson’s pacing is usually problematic, with endings coming fast and furious and necessarily so. In Lucy, it’s the beginning that goes too quickly. Once Lucy has “taken” the drug, she goes instantly into BAMF territory, which is fun, but then developed into a demigod in what felt like minutes. Do you have to be clever if you can put everyone to sleep with a flick of the wrist? Worse still, Lucy gets into some kinetic altercations that should have been too easy for Lucy to even notice. But Johansson’s performance (and face) is strong enough to ease those hasty transitions and Min-Sik Choi’s evilness is distressing enough to cover the plot gears that require his presence.
Where the greatest danger presented itself was what made the film special for Besson and that was in its ideas. Lucy is about life, purpose, and the universe. It’s Luc Besson’s The Tree of Life (2011), even including an epic journey through time. But if Malick was a Ph.D. candidate (and he was), Besson read an article and understood most of it and figured that was research enough. It is sophomoric but, like many sophomores, full of thoughts. They’re not all good nor are they fully vetted, but they send the mind reeling between fantasy and plausible rumination. That is, the movie is still playing in your mind after you’ve left the theater. That afterglow is the essence of a good conversation, good literature, and a good film.
Some of you will leave, turn to your companion(s) and vomit every piece you rightly or wrongly could not “get past”, but you will be denying yourself a warm bit of vague reflection. Lucy talks to her mother on the phone at one point and describes how she can feel the vibrations of the Earth, feel every caress and pain from her past, and is in tune with all. With our mere 10%, even we can be sent into that kind of sensation. Have you never felt alive in a chaotic universe, equally enchanted and at peace? That’s what I got out of it. As I made my way to the exit, two snippets of separate conversations made their way into my tracking shot within a second of one another. The first voice said “…weak all around” and then the second broke in with “best movie I’ve seen in…”
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