Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Review: "Lucy"

"Lucy" starts out as a brash crime thriller/drama with a sci-fi twist, and then it swerves into profundity, and folly.

Scarlett Johansson plays the title character, an inconsequential American girl partying in Korea, who gets forced into being a drug mule for an international kingpin. It turns out the mysterious blue powder surgically implanted in her belly -- it looks like the stuff from "Breaking Bad" -- leaks into her system, and causes one of those chain reactions where it rewrites her entire DNA, granting her super powers.

In this case, the change is not in her body so much as her mind. The human brain only uses 10 percent of its cerebral capacity -- as we are continually reminded in concurrent lectures by a brilliant scientist, Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman). If we could unlock just 20 to 40 percent of that potential, he suggests, humans would become capable of all sorts of amazing feats -- including telepathy, telekinesis and more.

Lucy is the living experiment, with her mind growing apace even as she embarks on an elaborate revenge-slash-salvation mission to find the other drug mules and confiscate the other bags of narcotics before they ... well, it's not exactly clear why she wants the stuff.

To prevent the creation of other super-brains like her? Given the way she disposes of the innocent -- shooting a taxi driver for the crime of not speaking English, for instance -- altruism does not seem to be high on her priority list.

Min-sik Choi, the Korean star best known for his role in "Oldboy," plays the drug lord, Mr. Jang, who is sophisticated and wears expensive suits and seemingly has an entire floor of a high rise set aside for his gory amusements.

The reconstituted Lucy easily mows through Mr. Jang's bodyguards to force him to give her the locations of the other mules. She hurts him enough to make him really angry, but doesn't kill him, which even with 10 percent of my brain I can deduce is not a very smart move.

(This is the perennial conceit of movies about the super-intelligent, as they always proceed to do very dumb things.)

Anyway, the plot quickly morphs into a race against the clock, as Lucy determines she will not live past achieving total consciousness, aka 100 percent brain use. She hooks up with a smoldering French detective (Amr Waked), who's basically just there to bear witness to her miracles and provide the barest of romantic subplots.

Soon she moves past parlor tricks like making a hallway full of gunmen levitate to tapping into people's cell phone calls just by read their energy patterns out of the air, taking over entire computer systems, and so on. In essence, she becomes Neo from "The Matrix," but without the alternate reality.

Writer/director Luc Besson, a Frenchman known for over-the-top tales of kinetic fantasy like "The Fifth Element," came up with a great idea for a movie and then didn't know where to cut the string. Individual scenes have a certain vibrant energy, like when she's flying on a plane, working two laptop computers at the same time, and her physical being starts to fritter away. But we feel the same thing happening to the narrative.

Having Johansson play the role with a sort of vacant robot mien was a mistake. She says that she can no longer full pain, fear or desire, and that she worries her humanity is slipping away. But why would this be so? One would think being able to fully access our memories and experiences would render them more emotionally intense, not less so.

"Lucy" is a smart idea for a film, obtusely executed.

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