After her mesmerizingly out-there performances as an artificially intelligent being in “Her” and a come-hither extraterrestrial in “Under the Skin,” Scarlett Johansson takes a logical next step into the title role of “Lucy,” an agreeably goofy, high-concept speculative thriller about the first human being to successfully harness 100% of her brainpower. In no other sense, however, does the word “logical” apply to writer-director Luc Besson’s return to blockbuster form — which is to say, his latest aggressively stylish, self-consciously feminist, gratuitously globe-trotting pulp-trash extravaganza. Giddily recycling everything from “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “The Matrix” to yakuza actioners and National Geographic documentaries, it’s a garish, trippy, wildly uneven and finally quite disarming piece of work, graced by a moment-to-moment unpredictability that will pique audience curiosity but may put off those who prefer their summer movies on the more conventional side.
Although it represents a significant roll of the dice as the most expensive project ever undertaken by the filmmaker’s EuropaCorp shingle, “Lucy” should capitalize on its strong international elements and Johansson’s bankability to become Besson’s biggest worldwide hit as a director since “The Fifth Element,” no small feat for an f/x-heavy original property in this over-franchised day and age. And unlike that bloated 1997 dystopian juggernaut, the film manages to clock in at a surprisingly sleek and multiplex-friendly 88 minutes, and its abrupt but elegant conclusion has the curious benefit of making this extravagantly silly entertainment seem somehow smarter and more enigmatic in retrospect than it does while it’s unfolding.
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Certainly the opening scenes don’t inspire much confidence that Besson is operating at anywhere near his full intellectual capacity, or that he expects any such smarts from his audience. After a brief prehistoric flashback to the dawn of man, the film quickly deposits us in present-day Taipei, where Lucy (Johansson), a hard-partying American blonde, finds herself lured into the web of a ruthless Korean crime boss named Mr. Jang (the splendidly villainous Choi Min-sik). This entire sequence is laughably intercut with nature-doc footage of cheetahs pouncing on their prey, just in case we fail to grasp our heroine’s trapped condition.
Terrified out of her mind, Lucy is forced to become a drug mule, with a bag containing a highly potent synthetic substance called CPH4 sewn into her stomach. When the bag bursts (Besson happily supplies a visceral closeup of her insides), Lucy not only miraculously survives the overdose, but also begins to experience some unintended and not entirely unwelcome side effects. The reason soon becomes clear: Rather than being restricted to the use of a mere 10% of her brain, she is suddenly able to access 20%, and then 30%, and so on — an unprecedented feat whose implications are unpacked at some length by the Paris-based researcher Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman). (The well-documented fact that humans actually do use most of their brains manages to debunk the movie’s premise without in any way detracting from its loopy pleasures.)
Lucy’s condition manifests itself gradually at first, then in ever grander and more astonishing ways. No longer cowering in fear, she’s now an expert assassin who quickly frees herself and turns the tables on her captors. Although she’s largely immune to pain, her powers of sensory perception reach superhuman levels of acuity — a phenomenon visualized by Besson and his visual-effects team as an endless network of data streams, invisible to the naked eye. She absorbs vast quantities of data (especially foreign languages) in record time and develops the ability to manipulate matter telekinetically, which, as Lucy learns, comes in pretty handy whether you’re trying to disarm an opponent or weave your way in and out of traffic.
But even as her cognitive command increases (the film keeps upping her brain percentage every 10 minutes or so), so does her awareness that she will not be able to survive much longer in this state, as her trillions of cells, each one now uniquely empowered, begin to behave in the manner of a rapidly metastasizing cancer. (One particularly dazzling CG sequence set aboard an airplane reveals her individual particles struggling to break free of their corporeal prison.) And so, not unlike the poisoned hero of the 1950 noir “D.O.A.,” Lucy finds herself in a race against time and her own body. Traveling from Taiwan to France — visually speaking, that means from Taipei 101 to the Eiffel Tower — she’s aided by the good professor and a bemused cop (Egyptian actor Amr Waked) in her quest to bring her enemies to justice, and also to use her superior knowledge for the good of humanity.
On an almost admirably perverse level, “Lucy” isn’t really much of a thriller — it’s virtually an anti-thriller, devoid of suspense or any real sense of danger due to the fact that its heroine is more or less invincible. At times it’s hard to shake the sense that a smarter, more unbridled picture might have found a way to slip the bonds of genre altogether. But if the movie fizzles somewhat as action, it’s because Besson seems more interested in engaging, playfully yet seriously, with the various biological, philosophical and metaphysical riddles that his story raises. Pointedly, Lucy gets a couple of eloquent monologues in which to ponder such weighty matters as the impermanence of all life, the preciousness of every moment, the human tendency to prioritize feeling over thinking, the depressing myopia of human experience in general, and the fact that life gains meaning only with the passage of time.
One reason “Lucy” emerges an enjoyably nutty diversion rather than a self-important slog is that it pays deft, knowing homage to any number of Hollywood sci-fi head-trip classics, embedding its ideas in a dense labyrinth of cinematic references that somehow end up feeling sly rather than shopworn. In trying to locate mankind’s precarious position within the greater cosmic order while also anticipating the literally mind-blowing next phase of human evolution, Besson’s film carries unmistakable traces of both “2001” and “The Tree of Life.” (Some of it even takes place in outer space.) Lucy’s gradual rise to omniscience and omnipotence recalls Neo’s own such journey in “The Matrix,” while her many black-suited Korean opponents suggest another army of Agent Smiths (Asian Smiths?). And in those moments when Lucy uploads herself, Big Brother-style, to every computer and TV screen in the vicinity, the movie can’t help but suggest a livelier, less ponderous remake of this year’s similar-themed “Transcendence.”
Not least among these allusions to other movies are the obvious echoes of Besson’s own. Like “La Femme Nikita,” “Leon: The Professional” and “The Fifth Element” before it, “Lucy” is a slickly engineered showcase for a kickass heroine whom we instinctively, unhesitatingly root for. It also feels like a calculated bid for popularity with a younger American audience that may be unfamiliar with this particular Gallic genre maestro (the “Taken” movies he produced notwithstanding). Certainly, after the bland history lesson of “The Lady” and the joyless family-friendly shenanigans of the “Arthur” trilogy, this is easily the director’s most alert, energized and recognizable piece of direction in years — a movie that, with its muscular widescreen imagery, vibrant streaks of color and pulsing musical beats, as well as its occasional tonal missteps and moments of unintentional hilarity, feels unmistakably like the work of its director.
In the end, though, it’s Johansson, our resident avatar of the otherworldly, who goes the furthest in bringing all these disparate elements together. In “Her,” the actress gave voice to a higher, more sophisticated form of consciousness, and in “Under the Skin,” she managed the tricky feat of regarding humanity through alien eyes. In some ways, Lucy represents the point at which both roles converge, and Johansson has the unusually difficult job here of subtly conveying her character’s observations, reactions and eventual epiphanies in a mostly deadpan, flattened-out register that becomes only more subdued as the film progresses. Somehow, she succeeds beyond all reason. Indeed, during the movie’s ludicrous-bordering-on-sublime final minutes, marked by whooshing camera movements and a highly malleable sense of time, it’s hard not to wonder if Lucy — fully free at last, and with infinite possibilities at her fingertips — might be intended as a hopeful, thinly veiled stand-in for Besson himself. Not for nothing, one suspects, is the character’s first name but one letter removed from his own.