About 16 years ago, when Luc Besson’s brilliantly insane The Fifth Element was still fresh in my mind, I came up with an idea for a story about a subsect of people who used more than the commonly referenced 10% of their brain capacity. I’d still been hoping to one day write this story (“when it’s ready” as writers like to tell themselves about ideas they probably won’t follow through on) as recently as two years when I learned that the 10% idea is a myth built on a misunderstanding of laboratory rats and humanity’s wish to be more than what it is. Needless to say this fundamental flaw shattered the entire story. I offer this little tale not to draw attention to myself but as open and honest context for this review.
Also essential for an honest review of Lucy is my own premise which many people will believe is fundamentally flawed: The Matrix is one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen. Not that it’s poorly made, although it is stolen from John Woo movies, Ghost in the Shell, and Gap commercials, but that it takes an intriguing idea and slaughters it in a hail of unnecessary gunfire. In many ways Lucy looks like an updated, internal form of The Matrix, with a dash of Tree of Life imagery and philosophizing thrown in.
Like The Matrix before it, Lucy spends a lot of time building to what everyone in the audience knows will happen. Any amount of fore-knowledge nullifies tension for the first twenty minutes (while the remaining 79 nullify themselves). Unlike its predecessor, Lucy actually uses this time to establish elements that are essential to understanding the protagonist’s transformation from typical person to psychics-bending super being. Again, like The Matrix, Lucy attempts to create its own rules, very clearly presenting thresholds at which its titular character will acquire hypothetical abilities, only to then cast those abilities aside when its most convenient to the plot.
It’s hard to take the threat a dozen guys with guns seriously when Lucy has already knocked out two dozen guys with guns at only half the ability level. Further, the numerous plot holes, like no one noticing Lucy openly carrying a suppressed 9mm into a hospital in a country where firearm possession is illegal, or Lucy learning Cantonese and then delivering a lengthy monologue to a Cantonese speaker in English, only further distract and disprove the believability of a premise that is already entirely incorrect. There is willing suspension of disbelief, but Lucy demands that you disregard even that which it asks you to disbelieve.
Once these growing pains are over, and anyone willing to turn their logical brain off does so, there are truly spectacular sights to behold. Much of Lucy is gorgeous (insert comment about this being particularly true of Scarlett Johansson and how watching 90 minutes of her doing anything is enjoyable enough) and many of its effects pieces are truly inspired. There is a ton of imagination on display in how Lucy utilizes her new abilities, albeit in the rather pedestrian way of using hand motions to navigate mental images or cell phones when she can reach directly into one’s brain. Sequences in which Lucy’s body breaks down and where she travels through time and space are especially well done, both in execution and off-screen implication.
The film’s biggest strength is conviction. Lucy may be running into a wall, but it is doing so at 100%. Its statements about life are facile and unconvincing, but at least it’s offering more than banal what-ifs and greeting card existentialism. As Lucy’s abilities rise, Scarlett Johansson does an excellent job of moving from flawed but human to perfect but inhuman. Although a solid performance, her removal from emotion makes Lucy an interesting and invulnerable protagonist, one we basically watch murder people not for being a threat to her continued existence but for being a mild inconvenience. Nonetheless this idea that the more efficient her brain becomes the less interested she is in any semblance of humanity is an intriguing and depressing conclusion to make about human capability.
Despite all its problems, Lucy does surpasses its own premise and development to an intriguing result. As previously mentioned, The Matrix fell apart by having a character who was so far beyond mere firearms descend to a place where his answer to every problem is guns guns guns and more guns. While Lucy‘s conclusion has many, many faults, likewise plummeting into primitive, predictable gun fights, it provides a more satisfying closing than letting the one with the most guns triumph. Yeah, the movie is stupid, but stupid things can occasionally trip and fall into something deep.
Lucy‘s problems begin with but are by no means limited to its entirely incorrect premise, yet everything about the film – from the silly and stupid to the fun and actually kind of brilliant – stem from that founding mistake. The fact that it succeeds at all is like someone who doesn’t know about gravity still juggling 11 bowling pins. Where The Matrix takes an intriguing premise and completely bungles it, Lucy takes a completely bungled premise and makes it intriguing.
Now, if only there were a way to tell this kind of story with a believable foundation. And that’s the story I hope to write… when it’s ready.