Friday, July 25, 2014

Lucy: An evolutionary leap in cinematic swill

Lucy (2014) • View trailer 
One star. Rated R, for strong violence, dramatic intensity and mild sensuality

By Derrick Bang

Goodness, what an abomination.

This ghastly excuse for a movie blends the worst elements of spring’s Transcendence and the loopy “Star Gate” sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey, with the “creation of the universe” nonsense from Tree of Life tossed in, for no particular reason.

Her senses heightened by a powerful designer drug, Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) finds that
she can "see" lines that represent cell phone conversations; she therefore sorts through
them until finding a key chat between the thugs waiting to ambush her.
And you thought this was a standard-issue revenge thriller? Think again.

French filmmaker Luc Besson is a one-man movie machine, with more than 100 titles to his credit during the past three decades: most as producer, but also quite a few as writer and/or director. He’s best known for helming high-octane action epics such as La Femme Nikita and The Professional, and he also created Jason Statham’s enormously popular Transporter series.

Besson’s hits have made pots of money, which have allowed him the luxury of self-indulgent vanity projects such as Angel-A and the children’s series that began with Arthur and the Invisibles. To put it kindly, such efforts have done little to burnish his reputation.

Lucy may tarnish it for several years. Not even the promise of three more Transporter entries is likely to compensate for this jaw-dropping example of pointless, wretched excess.

Besson directed and takes sole writing credit on this mess, so he deserves all the blame. And although Universal’s marketing strategy suggests a Nikita-esque thriller with Scarlett Johansson as the wronged, hard-charging protagonist, that’s a serious mishandling of this film’s actual nature.

Veteran filmgoers will feel nervous from the moments the lights dim, as we watch a CGI representation of ... cells dividing.

Say what?

Next up: a short prehistoric visit with AL 288-1, the female Australopithecus afarensis dubbed “Lucy” by anthropologists wise enough to recognize the value of shorter headlines.

Say what what?

After which, finally, we launch into what feels like familiar thriller territory, with an on-the-move introduction to Lucy (Johansson), a carefree American student livin’ la vida loca in Taiwan. At the moment, though, she’s wisely resisting a request by recent hook-up Richard (Pilou Asbaek) to deliver a briefcase to unknown parties at a posh hotel. Alas, Lucy’s self-preservational instincts aren’t fast enough to prevent Richard from handcuffing the case to her wrist.

The only way to get it removed: Hand it off to the enigmatic Mr. Jang (Min-sik Choi), clearly not a pleasant fellow. Although she survives this initial encounter, Lucy then becomes an unwilling drug mule, with a plastic packet of a designer drug surgically implanted below her stomach. She and three other equally “conscripted” civilians will be sent to different Western European countries, where they’ll be met by Mr. Jang’s colleagues, who’ll then remove the packets and release the mules.

Uh-huh. Even Lucy isn’t naïve enough to believe she’ll still be alive afterwards.

Unfortunately, despite Johansson’s best efforts to sell this sequence — and she does paralyzed terror better than most — the first act’s momentum is diminished by cross-cut scenes of a university lecture delivered by Samuel Norman (Morgan Freeman), a world-renowned expert on brain function. Dr. Norman explains, to an audience far more rapt than we are, that human beings use a mere 10 percent of their brain capacity; he then offers increasingly far-fetched theories about the abilities accessible to an enhanced person able to channel 20 percent, 40 percent or even — cue gasps — 100 percent.

Now, Morgan Freeman is an impressively talented actor, and I daresay he could deliver a scientific seminar better than most college professors ... but a lecture is a lecture. Even with Freeman at the dais, this said-bookism codswallop quickly grows tedious, not to mention irritating, since we’d much rather see what the heck is gonna happen to our terrified heroine.

Nothing good, of course. One brutal beating later, the bag in Lucy’s stomach ruptures, filling her system with little blue crystals of CPH4, which Besson imaginatively describes as (and I’m quoting the press notes) a “natural substance that pregnant women produce in the sixth week of natal development,” which “triggers” fetal mental and physical growth.

Okay, sure; I’m willing to buy that much. Sounds like a nifty way to explain Lucy’s transformation into a vengeance-fueled avatar determined to repay Jang and his minions in kind, right?

Oh, I wish.

Lucy’s senses, mental and physical abilities get enhanced all right, and her initial actions are, indeed, crowd-pleasingly cathartic. All too quickly, though, Besson’s story descends into the hippy-trippy nonsense that similarly derailed Johnny Depp’s “absorption” by mega-computer in Transcendence. Everything turns into CGI lunacy, most notably the way Lucy eventually “bonds” with a sizable server bank.

I mean, really: Our higher level of evolution is to become gelatinous black tar?

Because that, ultimately, is the point of Besson’s film; it’s why his heroine is named Lucy, and it’s also why we’re initially introduced to her prehistoric namesake. Action thriller trappings aside, this film was designed solely as a vehicle for Besson’s condescending screed on how we human beings have wasted our lives and potential, and how the world would be a far better place if we’d simply get a move on, and evolve into something better.

These sermon-esque aspects of Besson’s film are amplified by rat-a-tat, near-subliminal snapshot montages of society’s successes and failures, delivered with the sort of pedantic, patronizing tone that parents reserve for their misbehaving young children. Much of this supercilious twaddle comes from Freeman’s Dr. Norman, but Lucy soon contributes some of her own, even while dispatching bad guys by making them float to the ceiling: a highly unsatisfying (and rather ridiculous) alternative to simply shooting them, I might add.

All of which leads to the inevitable realization, mildly promising premise aside, that this film is all style and no substance. Worse yet, it’s preachy, self-righteous trash.

Not that Johansson deserves any blame. She acts the hell out of her early scenes; we can’t help but feel Lucy’s helpless, paralyzed dread, as she wonders what Jang, blood still dripping from his previous encounter with some nameless victim, has in store for her. But this isn’t even Johansson’s best scene; that comes later, post-enhancement, when Lucy makes what she expects will be her final phone call, ever, to her mother back home in the States. It’s a stunning moment.

Too bad Johansson is acting up a storm in a vacuum.

Choi is appropriately nasty as the loathsome Mr. Jang, and Nicolas Phongpheth displays similar menace as Jang’s implacable lieutenant. Julian Rhind-Tutt delivers some mild comic relief as Jang’s British colleague, who tells Lucy (and us) all about CPH4.

But Egyptian actor Amr Waked hasn’t the faintest notion how to play Pierre Del Rio, the French police officer Lucy decides to trust, as a conduit to locating the other three drug mules. It’s hard to fault Waked; Besson leaves the role as little more than a paper-thin cipher, a guy on hand merely to react to Lucy’s increasingly bizarre powers.


As my Constant Companion has observed with increasing frequency during recent years, the mere fact that filmmakers can employ CGI as a means to add masturbatory weirdness, doesn’t mean they should. Too many lazy directors — some of them fairly talented, like Besson — are substituting visual excess for basic narrative.

To paraphrase a recent aphorism, it is — and always has been — the story, stupid. Absent a plot and characters that are even minimally sensible and interesting, you have nothing.

The best that can be said for Lucy is that editor Julien Rey does his job; at a brisk 90 minutes, the torture concludes pretty quickly.

But you’ll still want those 90 minutes back.

1 comment:

  1. Good review Derrick. It's short, nutty and a whole bunch of fun. Mostly because Besson seems to be back in his comfort-zone. For better, as well as for worse.