Sunday, August 24, 2014

Lucy (Luc Besson, 2014)

Lucy Movie Poster

I’m honestly not sure whether Luc Besson’s Lucy (2014) is a good film or a bad one, or even whether I like it. I’ve always had a great fondness for Besson’s assassin thrillers, La Femme Nikita (1990) and Léon: The Professional (1994), and, although I initially hated The Fifth Element (1997) (its introducing me to Milla Jovovich notwithstanding), I have gradually come around to appreciating it as a justly enduring and, to this day, singular classic. Honestly, The Fifth Element is one of the very few works I have ever so done a 180 on, which is why I am so tentative now in assessing Lucy. Quite a lot of the movie seemed awful to me, parts of it I found almost unbearable, and yet there were moments (including some of those very same that might be, on one level, among its worst) that also felt singular and sensational.

The difficulties begin with Lucy’s very premise. No, not evolution, but the myth that humans use only 10 percent of their brains. The false notion has been perpetuated in pop culture for decades, and, for a long time, I took it as truth, never bothering to look into the real neuroscience, as I happily ate up fictions postulating that, if we could but tap into those unused parts of the human brain, we could access godlike superpowers. I can’t remember how or when exactly I learned the truth. It was not that long ago, but it was definitely before Lucy went into production. I don’t recall there being any big story debunking the myth, so I think I must have heard it by word of mouth. And, as my social circle is extremely small, I am almost always last to hear things by word of mouth, which means that, by the time Lucy went into production, the myth was already commonly understood to be just that, as attested to by my Facebook news feed full of people independently voicing their complaints against the film’s science, or by the fact that it’s the first thing that comes up in any discussion about the film, including now this one. It’s something that you just have to get over, as you willingly suspend your disbelief, which should not truly be any greater than for most sci-fi action films, but still it’s irksome that someone fully wrote and produced a big-budget movie in 2014 without doing even the barest research into the science of its premise.

The ways Lucy explores that premise are not altogether original. It has shades of The Lawnmower Man (1992), Akira (1988), and that episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (Season 4, Episode 19 “The Nth Degree”), where an accident involving an alien probe causes Lieutenant Barclay’s intelligence to steadily increase far beyond normal human levels. In Lucy, it is an untested new recreational drug accidentally released into the title character’s system that causes her cerebral capacity to steadily climb toward 100 percent, bestowing her with psychic powers, mastery of electronics, and the ability to reshape her own physical form (sometimes grotesquely). As Lucy’s powers grow, she also “ascends” beyond simple human concerns and even just humanity, although this is more of a drastic transformation than a steady one. The moment the drugs kick in, she becomes a different person.

Lucy’s story begins with an agonizingly protracted scene, where some shady male acquaintance tries to enlist her help to pull off a clearly illegal deal. These early goings intercut the action with clips of Morgan Freeman spouting bogus science as some authoritative professor (the use of Morgan Freeman I think is supposed to lend the character some credibility, but all the scientists in the movie end up so useless that he comes across more as a gentle-voiced hack in a world of idiots), also splicing in documentary footage of wild animals used to accentuate the tone of a scene (for example, predatory imagery to convey the danger closing in on Lucy)—a technique that is, at first, intriguing, then quickly annoying for its obviousness and overuse, but mercifully not carried on for the entire length of the film. As drawn out as this opening is, it’s necessary to get across what kind of a person Lucy is before her transformation, so that we can all the better appreciate the drugs’ effect. Played by Scarlett Johansson, Lucy may be already, without any drugs, a 10/10 in looks, but otherwise she’s a fairly ordinary young white woman living alone in East Asia. She likes to party (within reason), evidently has poor taste in men, is not especially acclimated to the city (with seemingly no local connections or any grasp of the language), has enough sense to decline the shady guy’s job offer (but not enough firmness to cut loose the scoundrel), and is suitably freaked out when things go sideways. By the end of the film, it feels a lifetime ago that she was ever that person.

Once the drugs take over, Lucy becomes basically emotionless and expressionless, speaking in a deadpan, deriving no satisfaction from the ass she kicks, evincing no alarm at her condition or situation, nor any real concern for anything, other than her immediate mission, whatever that is supposed to be. (I think the plot is supposed to have her working to somehow pass on the knowledge she has attained as an ascended being, although the movie never really bothers to convince the audience of the how or why or “what does that even mean” of it all. Rather than worry about it, it’s better to enjoy the experience in the moment, which is kind of how the film itself lives.) Johansson has two wonderfully physical scenes—the first when she’s captive and the drugs kick in, then later when she’s on the plane—but, the rest of the time, she’s just walking slowly, observing, waving her hands, and letting the special effects fill in the rest.

As an action film, Lucy really doesn’t work. Lucy’s displays of power are impressive and usually amusing, though often arbitrary in the forms they take. But she’s so powerful, and the villains so petty, that one feels that conflict should have been over and done with within ten minutes of the drug activating. Or maybe one of the bad guys should have taken the drug also, and become a rival god (unless such gods are altogether beyond such concerns), but the thought never occurs to anyone else in the movie. Instead, we get a really confusingly edited car chase and a truly awful shootout not even involving Lucy. Watching that shootout, I couldn’t help thinking, if it were viewed in isolation from the rest of the movie, one might even mistakenly get the impression that the bad guys were actually the good guys, but it’s more probable that you wouldn’t care which side is which, because it’s all so pointless and nonsensical.

The real climax of the movie is when Lucy reaches 100 percent and—SPOILER—attains the power to travel through time. This sequence, devoid of dialogue, where Lucy sits in observation of human history and evolution in reverse, is, at times, awe-inspiring, although that awe is also undermined by some heavy-handed imagery, as when she meets gazes with the Native Americans just lined up in place like a museum display, or when she decides to touch fingertips, a la The Creation of Adam, with humankind’s earliest known ancestor, with whom she shares a name.

That pretty much describes my feeling about the entire film as I came out of it. Lucy is at times awesome, at times awful, and maybe, at its very best, both at the same time. At the very least, it is, like La Femme Nikita (a film that created a mood and a style for which I have, ever since, felt an intense affinity) and The Fifth Element (another film that I will never forget), a unique work that holds back nothing creatively. Take that line about Lucy remembering the taste of her mother’s milk, for example. My immediate feeling was that this had to be some of the worst dialogue of all time, but, on the other hand, it was unlike anything I had ever heard, and it sure got my attention. So do I reward or deduct a star for that? Well, my feeling is that uniqueness has to be worth something, so… five stars! (I won’t say out of how many.)


Robert Fung said...

I think the movies that have stayed with me and influenced me the most are not necessarily the great movies, but the unique movies. As a child, yes, it was easier to remember every movie. But now, I find that the really strange and outlandish ones are the ones I come back to over and over in my mind. Prometheus, Grizzly Man, My Dinner with Andre, The Tree of Life, and now Lucy. All flawed, all unforgettable.

I don't remember the exact line, but was Lucy "remembering" the taste of her mother's milk? Or was she tasting her mother's milk in that very moment?

Henry Fung said...

"I remember the taste of your milk in my mouth."

I don't know of anybody else who makes movies like Zack Snyder does. Do his qualify as flawed but unforgettable?