So if you missed this sci-fi futuristic thriller starring Scarlett Johansson when it was in theaters, you were pretty much alone — at least if you’re a fan of this genre, or of Johansson. It grossed more than $126 million domestic, which is not bad for a movie so stupid it should be classified as a weapon of mass brain-cell destruction by the Pentagon.
If you’re tempted to rent or VOD it, allow me to stop you from killing 90 minutes that would be better spent rolling down a flight of stairs.
“Life was given to us a billion years ago. What have we done with it?” Lucy asks early on. Well, this film aims to tell us what we should be doing with it: turning ourselves into gods, gods who bear a striking resemblance to oil slicks.
“Lucy” has a double meaning. She is not only the character played by Johansson, an American student in Taiwan with very bad taste in boyfriends, but also AL 288-1, “several hundred pieces of bone representing about 40% of the skeleton of a female Australopithecus afarensis“—in short, evolutionary Eve.
Johannson’s Lucy is manipulated by that aforementioned boyfriend into delivering a metal suitcase filled with a blue crystalline drug (CPH4) to a gang of Korean gangsters, who then proceed to try and use her as a human mule: a package of the very powerful stuff is literally sewn into her abdomen so she can carry it to parts unknown. When some lowlife whose advances are rebuffed kicks her in the gut, the entire contents of this new synthetic drug are released into Lucy’s system: flooding her very person with a narcotic so powerful, it literally fast-forwards the evolutionary process, such that she slowly begins to use a greater percentage of her brain, with wacky results.
Here is where we have to stop and consider the main premise, which was mocked from mainstream critics early on. The idea that we use only 10 percent of our brains is a myth. Morgan Freeman, in the role of Professor Norman, a scientist who has spent his life calculating the possibilities of expanding that percentage, has apparently allowed his subscription to Scientific American to lapse, and proceeds to lecture the audience on this nonfact, and on how dolphins use 20 percent of their brains, which supposedly gives them the power of echo-location. Can you imagine what humans could do if we could use 20 percent of our brains? We would become human GPS systems. We could manipulate matter with our minds, à la Carrie. We could transcend barriers that our physical selves now impose on us.
Which is exactly what happens to Lucy. She is able to throw murderous thugs into the air with a mere thought and manipulate technology by mentally hacking into the frequencies at which they transmit data. She has also become impervious to pain. The downside is that her cells are replicating at such a rapid rate, she is dying. So she needs the help of Professor Norman to grapple with the possibilities of her newfound superstate before she literally explodes.
Lucy also enlists the help of a French cop named Del Rio (“from the river”? the river of life?) to help her track down the other human mules who were carrying the remainder of the CPH4 to Berlin, Rome, and Paris. She needs a fresh supply of the stuff to continue “growing,” and hopefully buy more time so she can transcend her own mortality.
There’s the inevitable final shootout between the French police and the gangsters, who are determined to get their drugs back and punish the little girl who has caused them so much grief. This provides the suspense as Lucy works with Norman and other scientists to test what a human brain on 100 percent power can do. Among other things, not only can Lucy space travel — move from one environment to another, one country to another — with her mind; she can also time travel. She finds herself in 19th-century New York, then pre-Columbian America, then encounters the original Lucy, an ape-like creature with whom she touches index fingers; think Michelangelo’s image of God and Adam fist-bumping before it was cool. Future Lucy has become the deity that was buried in the bones of AL 288-1 all along.
By the time Johansson makes it back to the lab in Paris, and the bad guys are all blood splatters (they represent man’s more primitive stage of development, you see), she has achieved the Omega Point: she has turned into an icky black substance that can morph into its own self-storing, self-replicating server, a device that pops out a thumb drive that lands in Morgan Freeman’s hand.
The future is not only weird, it’s extremely portable.
When Detective Del Rio asks, “Where is she?” a text message appears on his phone: “I am everywhere.”
Omniscience and omnipresence: all synthesized in a gangster’s lab. Crime does pay!
Morgan Freeman, host of the Discovery Channel’s Through the Wormhole, seems to be enjoying himself. Well, that’s one of him. As for Johansson, her considerable talent, ironically, isn’t given much room to expand. While she’s most sympathetic, and effective, as the victimized girlfriend in the hands of sociopathic drug smugglers, as Super-Lucy she just sorta zones out. Her affect goes all stare-into-the-abyss and her voice is reduced to a monotone what makes Siri sound like Meryl Steep in Julie and Julia. What can you expect from such a dehumanizing experience: both for her and the audience?
Lucy provides several visual allusions to other sci-fi classics, from 2001: A Space Odyssey to The Matrix. But unlike the former, Lucy inspires not awe but giggles. And unlike the latter, those laughs are unintended: it is, in fact, utterly humorless (unless you count souped-up Lucy’s driving a police car through the streets of Paris, having never driven before, bringing a whole new sexist twist to the notion of “woman driver”). No moviegoer could possibly take writer-director Luc Besson’s vision of (wo)man’s transhumanist future as seriously as he takes it himself; the burden would be unbearable. At least Besson’s equally confounding The Fifth Element, starring a blond Bruce Willis, was fun. But Lucy is on a mission from god (read Besson): it wants to be the sum of all great futuristic tales, the exclamation point to other visionaries epics. But Lucy is much less than its derivative parts; more like their excreta.
No one bothers to ask a very simple question in this thing. Take this quote from Professor Norman:
For primitive beings like us, life seems to have only one single purpose: gaining time. And it is going through time that seems to be also the only real purpose of each of the cells in our bodies. To achieve that aim, the mass of the cells that make up earthworms and human beings has only two solutions. Be immortal, or to reproduce. If its habitat is not sufficiently favorable or nurturing, the cell will choose immortality. In other words, self-sufficiency and self-management. On the other hand, if the habitat is favorable, they will choose to reproduce. That way, when they die, they hand down essential information and knowledge to the next cell. Which hands it down to the next cell and so on. Thus knowledge and learning are handed down through time.
But how can life, an accidental by-product of the Big Bang, have even a single purpose? Purpose implies a telos, an end to which it is directed. How does primordial chaos concoct such an end? Norman speaks of two kinds of immortality, really: the passing along of genetic information from one generation to other, ad infinitum, and the kind Woody Allen was interested in, which apparently was buried in our genes all along and only needed the nefarious schemes of Korean hoodlums to unearth.
Evolution does have a purpose: to buy time.
But time for what? What is blind chance looking for?
The great question of why is there something rather than nothing is never addressed here. It’s simply stated that, as a matter of fact, “life” appeared a billion years ago. OK, it’s a movie, you have to begin your story somewhere. But if life truly makes its appearance by chance, why is there a something that isn’t satisfied with strutting and fretting our hour upon the stage to be heard no more? Whence this godlike pretension? If you want to talk about how macro-evolution meets the Fall, there it is: man unable to accept that he’s merely AL 288-1. He must be as god.
Life isn’t satisfied with ignorance, Lucy asserts. It brings only chaos. But why do we seek order from beginnings that were anything but orderly? Why aren’t we at home with things just the way they are, seeing as we are composed of the same “stuff” that comprises earthworms and dandruff? In other words, why is there a something that asks the question why is there something rather than nothing?
Presumably so you can get from Paris to New York without having to endure a humiliating pat-down.
By film’s end, you won’t be inspired to use all parts of your brain; more likely you’ll feel like using the 10 percent required to cancel your Netflix subscription.