Lucy is a brainless-but-fun vehicle for Scarlett Johansson

Lucy with Scarlett Johansson

Lucy with Scarlett Johansson

Poor Morgan Freeman. These days, the veteran actor can’t seem to escape being cast – on account of those golden pipes of his – as the Voice of Reason. That’s not a problem in itself, necessarily; but it becomes one when the lines that have to come out of his mouth in an ill-conceived or poorly written movie do not pass the plausibility test. Then, their delivery in his authoritative timbre just begins to sound like some sort of cinematic meta-joke.

That, unfortunately, is the case with Lucy, Luc Besson’s latest science fiction opus – although “speculative fiction” is probably a more appropriate category, since the science backing up its basic premise is essentially nonexistent. Nevertheless, Freeman has to spend nearly all of his considerable screentime as Professor Norman delivering expository claptrap about humans using only ten percent of their brain capacity. It seems that no matter how many times neuroscientists shoot down this old wives’ tale, some filmmaker is at hand to offer it a new lease on life. From the Oscar-winning Charly (based on Daniel Keyes’s novella that launched this whole subgenre, Flowers for Algernon) in 1968 to Transcendence, the Johnny Depp vehicle that surfaced and almost instantly foundered just this past April, the premise of an infinitely expandable mind leads sci-fi geeks around by the nose as surely as frying bacon.

Freeman is still a class act and gives this bad dialogue (mostly monologues, actually) his all, in the sort of role that he could easily have phoned in. One only wonders why he bothered. It’s less challenging to guess at least one reason why Lucy’s star Scarlett Johansson accepted the gig: A lot of Marvel comic fans have been agitating for Marvel Studios to produce a standalone film project for Black Widow, her character in the Avengers, Iron Man and Captain America franchises. That concept has been described as “in development” for some years now, and some say that the studio heads have been dragging their feet, convinced that male audiences won’t turn out in sufficient numbers for a female action star, or that they’re waiting to gauge the response to the upcoming Wonder Woman movie. It’s entirely possible that Johansson snatched up this role as an opportunity to demonstrate how badass she can be onscreen on her own. Lucy clobbered the opposition in its opening weekend, so it may have been a wise career move.

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It’s tough to find fault with the actress’ performance as Lucy, a young woman of unremarkable mental gifts sojourning in Taipei, whose new boyfriend convinces her to make a drug delivery on his behalf. Turns out that the drug in question is a newly synthesized, superconcentrated growth hormone allegedly secreted by pregnant women, tiny quantities of which bestow a powerful kick to the user’s brain. Poor naïve Lucy walks into a shootout and gets kidnapped by drug kingpin Mr. Jang (Choi Min-sik), who forces her to become a “mule” with a packet of the wonder drug sewn inside her abdominal cavity.

But en route to her rendezvous, Lucy gets viciously kicked in the gut, rupturing the packet and releasing enormous quantities of the literally mind-expanding drug. In an instant she can climb walls and ceilings, and soon discovers that she can read minds and tap into communication networks at will. Overpowering her captors, she sets off in quest of Mr. Jang (for revenge), the other mules (for more of the drug) and Professor Norman (for answers).

Johansson ably handles the character’s transformation from average Jill to superpowered action heroine, whose empathy for fellow humans ebbs in proportion to her leaps in mental control. This arrangement is handy if you want to put, say, a car chase into your movie where the person driving the wrong way on one-way streets truly doesn’t care how many other people die in the pileups that she’s causing in order to get to see her new mentor in time.

As Lucy’s escalating invincibility takes the juice out of any relatable humanity that she may have started with, Besson distracts us with lovely footage, Tree of Life-style, of animals feeding, mating, evolving – including the protagonist’s famous proto-human namesake. All that collateral damage, he seems to be telling us, is just a meaningless blip on the screen on the way to one giant leap for mankind. “Death isn’t real,” Lucy impatiently informs Del Rio (Amr Waked), the policeman whom she has dragged along on her wild ride – but the movie never really bothers to explain what she means.

Even while I was scoffing at the preposterousness of its “scientific” explanations and feeling uneasy about its caricatured portrayal of Asian bad guys, I actually mostly enjoyed Lucy while it lasted. But it’s the sort of flashy cinematic experience that vanishes as quickly as a handful of bath foam once you’ve left the theater. The director wraps it all up in a shiny, stylish, high-velocity package with plenty of neat-looking special effects; but in terms of emotional punch or engaging philosophical questions, the movie’s core is quite hollow.

It’s a shame, because the resources were on hand to do better, more thought-provoking work. Maybe Luc Besson needs to start tapping the other 90 percent of his directing talents. Step One in his process of evolution would be to hire someone else than himself to write the screenplay next time. Too bad Daniel Keyes just passed away.

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