Saturday, August 23, 2014

'Lucy' (2014) directed by Luc Besson

Lucy is the dumbest film about being smart ever.  Working from the discredited (many, many times over) pseudoscientific myth about humans only using 10% of their brain at any time, this film imagines where we might go if we used more. Super-awareness? Telekinesis? Mind control? Manipulating electronics?  Being able to drive a car really really well?  The resulting film is an eyebrow-raising catalogue of barminess, a film stuffed to the gills with tiny little idiosyncracies and half-baked philosophising that left me (and much of the audience I saw it with) giggling in bemusement.

Our heroine, Lucy (Scarlett Johansson), is a student living in Taipei.  We meet her being pestered by her boyfriend to deliver a mysterious package on his behalf.  Suspicious, she declines - but the point is rendered moot when he forcibly handcuffs a briefcase to her wrist and sends her into a den of vicious Taiwanese mobsters.  The package turns out to contain a new type of clubbing drug and Lucy is subsequently pressganged into muling it to Europe. The package implanted into her abdomen, soon splits - sending the substance careening around her nervous system and giving her superpowers. (The questionable profitability of turning clubbers into superpowered god-beings is unfortunately not explored).

The rest of Lucy is split between her accessing ever more of her brain's potential (helpfully indicated by title cards reading 50%, 70% etc) and Morgan Freeman delivering a hilariously clumsily-written lecture cut together with stock footage of cheetah's eating antelops, 1920s footage of clowns and wild pigs fucking.  Freeman deserves a medal for being able to deliver this crap with a straight face, perhaps the only actor working today with the gravitas to pull off exposition this ridiculous.

Oh hey it's a bit like the Matrix.
Lucy is a patchwork quilt sewn from a thousand different influences. One minute there's a prehistoric CG landscape that echoes The Tree of Life, the next we're pulling imagery straight from Akira or action sequences reminiscent of The Matrix.  It's difficult to accuse Besson of theft, there's real love in these homages.  The biggest lift comes from a very unlikely place; the narrative free cinema of Godfrey Reggio's Qatsi trilogy and Ron Fricke's Baraka and Samsara.  The quickfire, time-shifted shots of traffic and food preparation mirror Koyaanisqatsi and Besson goes so far as to transplant actual footage from Fricke's films into his montages.

Given that many of these films rank in my all time favourites, theoretically Lucy should be onto a winner with me.  Problem is, all those films are incredibly intelligently constructed pieces of cinema with oodles of considered philosophy behind them and Lucy is dumb as a box of rocks. 

This magic brain drug looks like a lot of fun.
Intentionally or not, one of the central planks of Lucy is that mind altering drugs are fucking amazing. Notably, the crystalline drug that causes this raise in consciousness looks an awful lot like MDMA (albeit bright blue). There's a decent argument that Lucy's experience mirrors that of someone trying the drug for the first time. As she hits her high she feels totally connected to the world, able to perceive the heartbeats and moods of those around her. She even calls her Mum in the middle of the night to tell her she loves her! At this point I half expected the rest of the film to be Scarlett Johansson gurning her face off, reaching for laser beams and waving glow-sticks in people's faces.

The effect of this druggy psychedelia combined with half-assed cosmological pondering is a wonderfully accurate simulation of being trapped by a wide-eyed sweaty clubber in a chill-out room while they spout absolute bollocks.  Thankfully, just as it's difficult to genuinely dislike a 6am amphetamine mystic, it's difficult to genuinely dislike Lucy.  It's so adorably sincere about its  nonsense, so willing to go the extra crazy mile and so damn unpredictable that it just about works as an exercise in curiosity.  You watch because you want to find out where the hell Besson is going with all this.

Lucy is a movie that seriously postulates that a really really smart person can grow extra hands.
This curiosity is fortunate, because narratively Lucy doesn't work at all.  The plot, such as it is, revolves around Taiwanese gangsters hunting Lucy down while she in turn hunts down the smugglers holding onto the drug.  Problem is, about 25 minutes into the film Lucy stops being a character and turns into a robot.  With Johansson in emotionless killer mode comparisons to Under The Skin are inevitable, but the same act doesn't really work in an action film.  There's no emotional hook to get us rooting for Lucy and her quick onset of invulnerability makes every fight or chase sequence completely tension free.

The visual effects go some way to picking up the slack.  There's some genuinely imaginative visualisations of what it's like to be able to perceive the whole electromagnetic spectrum, see through people's skin or burrow into a person's memories.  The highlight is the climactic psychedelic trip-out sequence (I love these) that kinetically zips us around time and space, taking in Victorian Times Square, some confused American Indians, a vicious dinosaur, outer space and finally re-enacting Michelangelo’s The Creation Of Adam with a dodgy looking CG monkey-woman.  None of this makes much sense, but at least it looks nice.

God only knows what Besson is actually trying to say in Lucy.  Is he going for an action-film adaptation of Flowers for Algernon?  Trying to bring the philosophies of Koyaaniqatsi to a blockbuster audience?  Has he had a life-changing drug experience that he really wanted to share it with us?  We may never know.  What is certain is that Besson really thinks he's actually saying something profound.  He's really not, but he's so confident that he is that it's almost endearing.

Lucy is really really far from being a 'good' film, but it's certainly an interesting one.  Real stupid, but at least it's not boring.


Lucy is out now.

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