Luc Besson's "Lucy" Is Free Form Lunacy At Its Worst

The bathroom break is one the great conundrums of moviegoing – a consistently awkward shot in the dark, an ever-present threat to derail a perfectly fine night out. Go at the wrong time and you’ll miss an important plot point. Go at the right time and you’ll spend the next 10 minutes thinking you missed an important plot point. Some movies thwart these timeouts through sheer energy, or by being so compelling as to force on-the-fly risk assessment. But others practically mandate them, encouraging long, leisurely strolls to and from the concession stand and all points nearby.

Then, there’s Luc Besson’s “Lucy,” a 90-minute bathroom break disguised as a movie, a test in the outer limits of audience apathy. Each frame is, often impossibly, more inessential than the last, the pic coupling a tired action-oriented narrative with gobs of titanically stupid faux-scientific babble. There are a finite number of synonyms for the word “dumb,” but the stupidity of “Lucy” knows no such bounds. It’s an antagonistically unintelligent piece, one that clearly views itself as equal parts entertaining and profound. It’s neither.

Fresh off a career-defining performance in Jonathan Glazer’s brilliant “Under The Skin,” Scarlett Johansson stars here as the eponymous Lucy, a woman with the wrong boyfriend at the wrong time. She soon becomes an unwilling drug mule, a bag of tiny, dark blue crystals sewn inside her stomach. When she’s assaulted by one of her captors, the powder leaks from its pouch, seeping into her insides and turning her into a super-smart supersoldier. The drug, CPH4, is said to allow for its users to use a higher percentage of their brain capacity.

That well-worn cliche – that humans only use 10% of their brain – isn’t true, but it’s an understandable jumping-off point for a sci-fi actioner. What isn’t understandable, however, is the film’s positing of said premise as something based in science, complete with Morgan Freeman narration (seemingly the only reason he’s in the film) and documentary-style nature shots. Lucy’s increase in brain power first manifests itself as increased sensitivity to her surroundings, meaning better motor skills and situational anticipation. Fine. It worked in Guy Ritchie’s “Sherlock Holmes” films, so it should be a cozy fit here.

But her skills soon transform, “Matrix”-style,” into the ability to do anything – metaphysical manipulation of objects, co-habitation of human bodies, and time travel – rendering the story around her absolutely meaningless. For all intents and purposes, the character is a god, wholly handcuffing an already limp story. What could have been an opportunity for Besson to embrace the kind of trippy visuals he’s dabbled in before – something he does here, to extent – ends up played mostly straight, as if the screenplay were a suitable approximation of what a super-smart person might sound like.

The first act’s aforementioned nature footage is particularly obtuse, providing the initial faux-artsy shockwave that immediately knocks the film off its axis. We begin on Lucy being stalked by bad people, like a gazelle being stalked by a cheetah, with Besson intercutting his narrative with footage of an actual cheetah stalking a gazelle. It’s a gimmick that only reminds us we’re watching a story that isn’t interesting enough to stand on its own, yet one that’s made worse by a filmmaker not knowing how to self-correct.

Johansson fares poorly, but not for a lack of trying. Her approximation of being highly intelligent mostly involves fast-talking and head-tilting, but given the thinness of the role and the inanity of the story around her, it’s hard to blame her for not knowing what to do. A handful of moments suggest that the screenplay is aware of its own preposterousness, but the title character’s fog of self-seriousness clouds any hopes of the experience being the least bit fun. It’s not until the pic’s climax that Lucy does something remotely understandable – she vanishes from her own film.

“Lucy” – advertised by Universal as a light, fun, star-driven action film – will leave plenty asking for their money back, but money won’t be enough. Its CGI-heavy car chases, badly rendered Neanderthal flashbacks, gratuitous shots of people on scooters, and just about everything else in it warrants something more. A Starbucks gift card? An “I Survived Lucy” t-shirt? A personal note of apology from the desk of Luc Besson? If there’s anything worse than being condescended to, it’s being condescended to by someone who has no idea what he or she is talking about. And that’s “Lucy,” a whirling dervish of nonsense, inexplicably pompous.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Bad)

Release Date: July 25, 2014
Studio: Universal Pictures
Director: Luc Besson
Screenwriter: Luc Besson
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman
Genre: Action, Thriller
MPAA Rating: R (for strong violence, disturbing images, and sexuality)