Following Under The Skin and Her, Scarlett Johansson’s latest foray into off-kilter science fiction comes at the hands of veteran writer/director Luc Besson – a man still best known and loved for a film he made 20 years ago. And there certainly parallels to be drawn between Mathilda, Léon‘s young heroine, and Lucy.
They’re both feisty, a bit of a mess, and share a tendency toward quite serious sociopathy when pushed.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Really, to draw a comparison between the two films is unfair to either one; they’re entirely different entities, the only connection between them being the hope the audience holds that Besson might manage to make a modern film that holds up to his 1994 masterpiece.
Still, though, the director is deservedly celebrated for his intense thrillers, slick visual style and strong female protagonists – and Lucy ticks all those boxes. The story follow’s our titular heroine, an ordinary, albeit superlatively sexy, girl living it up in Taipei for reasons seemingly undeserving of explanation.
Despite her streetwise nature, she’s royally screwed over by an ex-boyfriend, who involves poor Lucy in a dodgy deal with a dangerous and almost comically violent Chinese gangster. A few hours, and a tense exchange or two later, and Lucy finds herself stuffed full of a trendy new drug, CPH4, and about to be shipped off to Europe.
Supposedly a hormone produced by pregnant women, CPH4 might not sound sexy, but in Besson’s world it has the potential to release the 90 per cent of our brains we keep dormant, enabling human beings to understand and reach their full potential – with almost limitless (see what we did there?) possibilities.
The kids are going to go crazy for it, apparently. Or, at least, they would be if an idiotic henchman hadn’t decided to give poor Lucy a brutal kicking, rupturing the bag sewed into her stomach and releasing the substance has her climbing the walls. Literally.
What awakes is a woman-shaped machine capable of extraordinary feats of awesome.
From kicking the ass of that aforementioned henchman, to learning Chinese in an instant and feeling no pain, remorse or – well, anything really. As the drug continues to unlock Lucy’s cerebral power and extraordinary, superhero-esque powers of telepathy, transfiguration and telekinesis manifest, her humanity begins to fade.
Knowing that the substance will eventually kill her, she embarks on a violent, one-woman mission to wipe out the cartel who signed her death warrant, simultaneously promising to pass on all the mind-blowing knowledge she has absorbed to brain scientist, Professor Norman (Freeman in what is possibly his most pointless role of all time).
It’s clear from the outset that Besson knows how silly this all is. He revels in it, exaggerating everything to the point of ridiculousness, determinedly finding the fun among the reasonably graphic violence and rather dire situation his protagonist has ended up in, and refreshingly eschewing many tropes along the way.
But behind the mad, existential glint in his twinkly French eyes is some sort of point – difficult to discern though it may be. Using just ten per cent of our brain capacity may have allowed humankind to do extraordinary things, but society has clearly become more concerned with having than being. Are we stunting our own evolution? And if we allowed ourselves to advance, would we want to face the consequences?
Besson’s consequences for Lucy aren’t all that attractive, to be honest.
She might be able to travel through space time and unlock the secrets of the universe, but there’s no happiness to be found for her; she’s forgotten what happiness is.
Meanwhile, as Lucy’s admittedly unpredictable vengeance quest continues, the point of it all is lost. In his effort to spin an entertaining sci-fi yarn, Besson has missed the detail that makes movies compelling.
The film is as lacking in humanity as his heroine, and despite a worthy performance from Johansson, who more than earns her action heroine badge, we’re left just as cold by the end of it.