In Lucy Scarlett Johansson plays the titular character – an innocent young woman forced to work as a drug mule for the mob in Taipei, Taiwan. Threatened with harm to her family and friends, Lucy agrees to transport an experimental substance via surgical implantation inside of her belly. However, when one of the thugs viciously attacks Lucy prior to her flight, the drug packet breaks open – leaking a lethal dose of chemicals into her system.
Yet she does not die, instead realizing that the drug has radically improved nervous response - setting Lucy on a path to unlocking the full potential of her brain. Moving past the 10% (according to the movie) that normal humans use, Lucy begins to discover a host of new abilities - including telekinesis and mind-reading, among other superpowers that defy our understanding of human physiology. Armed with powerful skills, Lucy attempts to round-up remaining samples of the drug – to keep the substance out of malevolent hands as well as blaze forward on her journey of enlightenment.
French filmmaker Luc Besson (Léon: The Professional and The Fifth Element), who has also produced and written a number of successful thrillers (such as Taken and The Transporter) directs Lucy. In spite of its sci-fi action marketing, the film is more aptly described as sci-fi drama with a few stylized action beats. This isn’t to say that, on its own terms, Besson’s film is a misfire – it just might not be the gun-toting, jump-kicking brawler that some moviegoers were expecting. Instead, Besson delivers an uneven but interesting blend of philosophy and scientific theory that attempts to comment on human nature and our place within all of creation – with subtle and not-so subtle filmmaking decisions to hammer home his message. As a result, reactions to Lucy will vary greatly – certain cinephiles will relish in Besson’s playfulness (and uncompromising commitment to his core concept) while casual moviegoers may find the film’s eccentricities to be downright distracting (and laugh-worthy).
Ultimately, as Lucy begins unlocking brain potential and new abilities, Besson is less interested in what the character can actually do, focusing the majority of his attention on how she perceives others as well as what these discoveries might mean for humankind’s future. The story is packed with heady sci-fi ideas and Besson does his best to ensure that, as Lucy journeys to 100%, her character evolves along with the plot. However, given that the story is glued to Lucy’s perspective, some viewers may find it hard to connect with both the main character and surrounding players.
As Lucy learns more about humanity and the greater universe, she becomes increasingly less “human” - and subsequently less capable of forming a genuine connection with others. As a result, most of the supporting players come across as thinly formed outlines, representative of how Lucy views them, little more than cogs in a vast machine. The same can be said for the film’s action set-pieces. Each one provides interesting visuals but few carry substantial weight – since Lucy is over-powered and mostly indifferent to her antagonists. After all, if the main character isn’t frightened or worried about her life (or the lives of those around her), it’s unlikely that the audience will be any more invested or anxious.
Nevertheless, Scarlett Johansson delivers an intriguing performance in the lead role – with just enough setup, and one especially touching scene in the opening act, to ground Lucy before she begins disassociating from the rest of humanity. Lucy’s indifference works within the context of the film but she’s more of a flesh and blood opportunity to showcase the premise than a developed individual - living scientific theory instead of a memorable or particularly likable person. To that end, the actress and Besson succeed in their depiction of a woman losing touch with the very things that make her human but some viewers will, understandably, be underwhelmed by the lead character’s overall detachment.
Unfortunately, the supporting cast does little to help supplement Lucy with humor or relatable empathy. Morgan Freeman is charming in his role as Professor Samuel Norman – but the character is almost entirely relegated to providing exposition for the film’s scientific theories along with explaining what Lucy is actually doing at any given moment. Similarly, Amr Waked is equally thin as a French police officer that gets tangled in Lucy’s quest to procure more of the experimental drug – dedicating his life to her protection almost immediately (without fully comprehending her motives). Choi Min-sik serves as the film’s primary villain, Mr. Kang – supported by a horde of faceless henchmen for Lucy to avoid/kill/incapacitate. Kang is provided with a memorable introduction but, once he loses control, becomes little more than a hopelessly outmatched fly buzzing in Lucy’s heightened periphery.
Without question, action-thriller fans will be underwhelmed by Besson’s latest effort – which prioritizes brainy scientific theories over heavy-hitting brawls at every single turn. Similarly, while the filmmaker’s choice to directly parallel Lucy’s story with nature and evolutionary biology makes sense in context, a number of on-the-nose moments might illicit eye-rolls and unintended laughs from viewers who are struggling to connect with Besson’s vision. That said, for moviegoers who are interested in a bookish sci-fi drama that often poses more questions than answers, Lucy could provide a worthwhile, albeit sometimes clumsy, exploration of this central premise.
In the end, many elements that make Lucy off-putting for casual moviegoers will be the same hooks that make the film engaging and believable to sci-fi lovers. Lucy will not speak to a wide audience but those that fall within its target reach should be rewarded with thought-provoking science fiction.
Lucy runs 90 minutes and is Rated R for strong violence, disturbing images, and sexuality. Now playing in theaters.
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