With Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Min-sik Choi, Amr Waked, Julian Rhind-Tutt. Written and directed by Luc Besson. Rated R for strong violence, disturbing images, and sexuality. 90 minutes.
With “Under the Skin” and now LUCY, Scarlett Johansson has starred in two of the most mind-blowing science fiction films of 2014. Where “Under the Skin” was arty and understated, “Lucy” is written and directed by Luc Besson (“The Professional,” “La Femme Nikita”) so you know it’s going to have plenty of action. Yet behind the shootings and special effects is a smart movie that may surprise you.
Lucy (Johansson) is a student, who, for some reason is in Taiwan. We’re thrown right into the story as a seedy boyfriend tries to get her to deliver a briefcase to a Mr. Jang (Min-Sik Choi). It turns out to be a very bad deal. Suffice to say something happens that causes a profound change in Lucy.
Meanwhile, we see Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman) give a lecture on his theories about what it might mean if humans could use more than the 10 to 15 percent of our brains that we actually utilize. Pay attention, because it’s here where the plot of the film is explained. After being kidnapped and brutalized, Lucy discovers that her brain power is increasing. Indeed, she can see and do things ordinary humans cannot. It’s only a matter of time before the two meet and, unlike his similar scientist in the recent “Transcendence,” he’s there to help rather than oppose the film’s protagonist.
Where “Transformers: Age of Extinction” took nearly three hours to tell a story that could have been written on a matchbook, Besson’s pacing is fast and taut. There are no wasted moments. While Lucy is trying to understand what is happening to her, Jang and his gang of thugs are in hot pursuit leaving a trail of bloody bodies in their wake. Besides the professor, Lucy’s only ally is a French police detective (Amr Waked) who isn’t quite sure what’s going on even when it’s right before his eyes.
This is not a movie where you go for the acting as everyone is pretty much given their one-note characters and told to run with it. Freeman was presumably cast as much for his avuncular and authoritative voice as anything else. Even if you don’t quite follow what he’s saying, you’re willing to go along. The one real performance here is Johansson’s, who starts out as a bit of ditz and then evolves as her powers increase. In one bizarre scene she has to supervise a surgical procedure on herself–without anesthetic–while making an emotional phone call to her mother.
It all plays out like a tightly-written short story where a character is set on a race to a goal. At film’s end, the plot elements have been tied up, but like the Star Child returning to Earth at the end of “2001” you may be left wondering what happens next. It would be a mistake to do a sequel as nothing that follows could really do justice to what’s been established here.
“Lucy” may succeed where “Transcendence” failed by providing the requisite action to propel the plot, and giving us Scarlett Johansson turned into a superbrain rather than Johnny Depp turned into a computer program. Yet both films focus on questions rarely asked: if evolution is an ongoing process, why should we imagine humans are the end game? What might the next stage be? And will present-day humans seem like Neanderthals to whatever might come next?•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran film critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood, and the Bartender’s Guide. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.