I am not a professional film critic.
I’m just a guy who likes thinking too much about movies and film, and then putting those thoughts into writing for all the internet to see. In this particular context, that means that I am unable to see every single movie when they come out. Usually the reason is money, but sometimes it could also be lack of time, lack of availability in my area or a lack of interest on my part. Cinematic Second Chances is a place for me catch-up on those movies I missed.
When I started this little feature, with the intention of doing it periodically when circumstances come together to create a situation where I have nothing else to write about, I was mostly expecting to be watching “under-appreciated” movies. Gods of Egypt was a good movie to start with, because it turned out to be a fun little ride that had its share of merits and faults, but was a perfectly enjoyable distraction overall. Now, however, I’m realizing that not everything can be an underrated gem; sometimes a movie really is deserving of some of the derision initially heaped-upon it. Case in point, 2014’s sci-fi action film Lucy.
Written and directed by Luc Besson and starring Scarlett Johansson as the titular Lucy, along with Morgan Freeman as some college professor/brain scientist, Lucy takes a well-worn old wives’ tale and tries to spin an interesting story out of it. This time, it’s the misconception that humans “only use ten percent of their brains,” and the movie posits what happens when someone manages to harness more of our brain power, up to and including the full 100 percent.
In terms of initial premises for a sci-fi movie, it’s not a bad one. I remember seeing a lot of people rag on the movie for that premise, as if it was some revelation that the “ten percent myth” was in fact a myth, when the movie first came out. I couldn’t understand why people thought that was a big deal when we live in a world where we don’t heap nearly as much scorn onto the concept of hyperdrives, Iron Men and Jurassic Parks. It’s just an initial premise from which the rest of the movie can take form, and it’s the nature of sci-fi to speculate outward from an initially believable starting point.
To its credit, Lucy does spin a fairly interesting yarn out of that premise with the right kind of mix of heady themes and outlandish visuals (It made me think that Lucy was basically a trial run of the upcoming live-action Ghost in the Shell movie in terms of visuals and concepts). But it’s in the execution where it fails, and I understood why people didn’t like this movie.
…the right kind of mix of heady themes and outlandish visuals, but it’s in the execution where it fails.
I knew something was wrong right from the very first scene in the movie – the opening voice over by Johansson was forgivable, if cliché – but then Lucy and her boyfriend (?) in Taiwan, arguing over dropping off a briefcase to some shady dude, was both a mess and boring. The conversation itself was just intolerable. Johansson does her best to sell her lines and act the part, which she does admirably throughout the entire movie, but it’s just a back-and-forth of: “Deliver the package!” “No, you do it!” “No, YOU do it!” “Nuh-uh! I don’t wanna!” for what feels like the entire first quarter of the goddamn movie. It’s shot completely in boring, static shot reverse shot and it’s super tedious.
We’re also treated to a gimmick that I think the movie wanted to have throughout its length, but ended up dropping after the first few scenes: cutting away to stock footage that ham-fistedly symbolizes what’s going on in that scene. When Johansson is being convinced to deliver the package instead of the dude, we see a shot of a mouse approaching a mouse trap. Subtle. When she’s actually delivering the package, it’s intercut with nature footage of a pack of cheetahs stalking an antelope (0r whatever those things are called. Ibex?). SUBTLE. It’s almost like the movie doesn’t trust its viewers to “get” what’s going on, but it’s also too lazy, y’know, perform some amount of cinematography in order to convey a feeling or thought in a way that doesn’t literally spell it out.
Fortunately, that kind of gimmick quickly dies off and is momentarily replaced by cut-aways to Professor Freeman word-for-word explaining the science and pseudo-science of what’s happening to Lucy as she acquires her new abilities, then is mostly forgotten about. It’s at this point in the movie where it bounces between “Why is this happening?” and “That could’ve been cool!”
When Johansson starts getting her powers, sign-posted by big giant splash screens of growing percentages in a way that should only be done in a shonen anime, the movie begins to have moments of inspiration and there are pieces that I actually like.
The scene where she initially starts getting bigger brain power was a cool and weird scene that reminded me of the Inception hallway fight scene, with practical effects giving the illusion of defying gravity. The scene immediately after where she needs to eat a lot to power her new brain, without any dialog or shots explaining it, was actually kinda clever and worked within the rules of “brain science.” Basically any scene where we really get to see her show off her new powers are fairly interesting with nice visual flourishes, even if they’re sometimes ham-handed with their dialog and they come out of nowhere for seemingly no reason.
There’s actually one scene that I thought was genuinely inspired and mostly well-executed. When Lucy was just starting to gain all the knowledge in the universe, one of the first things she did was call her parents to her she loves them. Johansson acts the shit out of someone who has fully realized the extent of her parents’ love and now fully appreciates it in the face of death, and it’s scene that I don’t think many people would have thought to include in a sci-fi action movie based around brain powers. It delivers a sobering and humanising message about the nature of memory, knowledge, empathy and how are ignorance often cuts us off from the love and care that is sitting right in front of us.
But then the movie ends right up its own philosophical butthole when Johansson begins explaining the nature of the universe just as she reaches ‘MAXIMUM BRAIN POWER’. It all sounds like high-school-stoner logic delivered with a matching amount of adolescent smugness, and it tries to back it up by trying to go full 2001: A Space Odyssey. While, again, the visuals are interesting, it can’t help but have a blunt “The Creation of Adam” reference you probably saw coming hours ago alongside a really pointless gun fight. Then it unceremoniously ends with Lucy becoming a fucking USB of ultimate knowledge and a dead man in a chair, in an overhead shot that I couldn’t tell if it was symbolic or not.
It’s movies like Lucy that, in a roundabout way, that movies can be made from just about anything, no matter how silly, weird or stupid their premises might be. Hell, the current movie landscape is dominated by caped heroes and guys who where their initial on their forehead. But the premise is the easy part. Executing on that premise is the hard part, and it’s why a handful of good ideas and scenes cannot save a movie that’s just poorly put together.
But at least Scarlett Johansson got some weirdness practice in before playing the Major in Ghost in the Shell, which is slated for release in 2017.