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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

Lucy movie review: head case

Lucy red light

In this pile of adolescent heavy-metal-deep pseudo-sci-fi philosophy, the meaning of humanity (or lack thereof) depends on how “cool” something looks onscreen.
I’m “biast” (pro): love Scarlett Johansson

I’m “biast” (con): not generally a fan of Luc Besson

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

You know how you can tell that Luc Besson is completely full of shit — and knows it — with the adolescent heavy-metal-deep pseudo-sci-fi philosophy of Lucy? Because what it has to say about the meaning of humanity varies depending on nothing but how “cool” something looks onscreen.

When Lucy (Scarlett Johansson [Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Chef], who deserves better than this) accidentally ends up with a massive overdose of a synthetic drug meant to increase one’s “cerebral capacity” — an unself-aware riff on the myth that we dumb monkeys typically use only 10 percent of our brains — she begins to acquire preposterous superpowers, such as the ability to manipulate space and time, which she then uses to exact revenge on the gangster (Min-sik Choi) who thought to coerce her into transporting the drug. Besson (Brick Mansions, The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec) perhaps hopes we’ll start to ponder whether abilities such as empathy are mental artifacts the human species will leave behind if it evolves beyond that supposed 10 percent, which he depicts — as writer and director here — by having Lucy shoot dead an innocent bystander who isn’t even in her way and later by exhibiting utter disregard for the appalling human and property damage she leaves in her wake during a car chase.

She simply doesn’t care anymore, you see, about puny 10-percenters, in the same way that we don’t care about stepping on ants. (Anyway, “We never really die,” she says with her superadvanced brain; she offers no evidence whatsoever for this bizarre assertion, but it’s all okay then, I guess.) So why, if we are only ants to her, doesn’t she kill the army of gang soldiers who actually are in her way and actually are out to kill her when that would be the easiest and most productive thing to do? Because it’s way the hell cooler if Besson can show us how she floats them up toward the ceiling and lets them hang there. As if she were in the Matrix and turned out to be The One.

We could talk about how this and other examples of supercharged action nonsense only serve to underscore, even better than most action movies do, how truly stupid the clichés of the genre are. Like how Besson simply cannot resist shoving the camera up in Lucy’s ass for your viewing pleasure — he is using the dick portion of his cerebral capacity, it would seem — because even a woman evolved beyond what we would consider decent humanity is still a sexual object, doncha know. Like how the shootout set to classical music comes across like a Baby Einstein attempt to, maybe, kick your brain up to 11 or even 12 percent.

But Besson has higher artistic and philosophical goals in mind, and they are better worth deriding. When she’s not killing bad guys, Lucy is trying to get to Professor Morgan Freeman (Transcendence, The Lego Movie), who Studies This Stuff and lectures us on the human brain. It’s never really clear why she wants to get to him — she ends up giving him something that she could have given to anyone –but he’s the purveyor of the scientific absurdities meant to underpin such “radical” concepts as “maybe intelligence and knowledge makes us less human” that are meant to be whoa-inducing.

Those scientific absurdities can just about be taken as metaphoric, and aren’t worth worrying too much about. But there’s no excusing the pile of popcorn sci-fi sermonizing they are meant to serve, which are lofty only in Besson’s 10 percent. Lucy is like 2001: A Space Odyssey meets The Tree of Life for Dummies, lots of flashing on nature footage of, say, a cheetah with its scared herbivore prey, in case you missed out on how Lucy, before she got supercharged, was like a little soft baby doe about to get fanged by a nasty predator. Later, when she is fully mentally evolved, she will travel back in time and meet the protohuman Australopithecus Lucy, because why not? It’s deep, or something.

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Lucy (2014)
US/Can release: Jul 25 2014
UK/Ire release: Aug 22 2014

Flick Filosopher Real Rating: rated WYTW (wants you to whoa)
MPAA: rated R for strong violence, disturbing images, and sexuality
BBFC: rated 15 (strong bloody violence)

viewed in 2D IMAX
viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers

official site | IMDb
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.

  • bronxbee

    kinda disappointed (because i like scarlet johansson), though not surprised (because, the trailers).

  • YES. Almost exactly what I said in my review, but your words are better :)

  • RogerBW

    BB, I thought the trailers looked quite promising. I thought I might be able to ignore that tired old 10% of the brain nonsense. I don’t mind a good actioner, and someone developing superpowers is more interesting to me than just another established superhero story. But not only is the film built round the 10% thing, there’s also the anti-intellectualism, the idea that the smart person is intrinsically “less human”. Oh well.

  • rosterri

    I really like Scarlett Johansson and could stomach seeing her in something just okay but this sounds pretty dreadful.

  • Bluejay

    I thought it had great visuals (I thought the nature shots, and the reference to Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam in the meeting with the prehistoric Lucy, were nice directorial touches). But yes, it suffered from a ridiculous story and an even more ridiculous philosophical underpinning. It’s a shame, because the film looked like it might be an interesting non-comics-based solo-superhero vehicle for Johansson, who I like to imagine got fed up with waiting for her Black Widow movie to get made.

    At least the fact that the film opened strong, handily beating Dwayne Johnson’s Hercules, is further proof (as if more were needed) that female-led action films (even bad ones) can draw an audience and make a poopload of money. Now we just need better-written ones.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    I think was one of those movies, for me, that had a dumb, dumb story, but was able to keep me more or less engaged. Sure, it starts from a bullshit (i vaguely plausible) premise – we only use 10% of our brain capacity; some chemical usually only present in utero will crank that capacity up in adult humans – but I was actually able to move past that because every bullshit result didn’t in any way follow from that premise – I can see increased brain activity turing you into a speed reader, but I don’t see how it would give you the powers of telekinesis and shape-shifting, or the ability to access computer networks with your mind.

    But still, I was engaged, more or less. It really does look good. And I was intrigued by the European-ness (or maybe just the French-ness) of the production.

    I contrast it with Pacific Rim; a movie which was equally stupid, but could not keep me interested.

  • I’ll actually avoid squishing an ant/spider/grasshopper/ whatever if it’s possible. I’m a nature goober like that.
    This movie looked interesting enough. I’ll certainly watch it when it comes out for home viewing.

  • teufelaffe

    Who is the innocent bystander she shoots and kills? If you’re referring to the taxi driver who didn’t speak English, she shot him in the leg (as evidenced by him groaning “My leg” as she rides off in the other driver’s cab.) It wasn’t all that memorable a film, but I don’t recall her shooting anyone else who wasn’t a Bad Guy®.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    How about the guy on the operating table? Sure, she said he wasn’t going to survive anyway, thanks to magical 20% brain capacity knowledge, but that was still a dick move on her part.

  • Em

    I used to be a fan of Luc Besson, but it seems as if he’s not even trying anymore, and Lucy is a perfect example of that. He takes the plot of a movie made years ago (Limitless– which I enjoyed, though sick of this 10% crap being perpetuated) and remixes it with Nikita and a splash of 5th Element for good measure. But of course people will go see it because it has ScarJo kicking ass (but with blonde hair, this time!) and a solemn, concerned Morgan Freeman to give it a tinge of cinematic gravitas. Just another flashy cliche-fest.

    I used to be a fan of Scarlett Johansson, she is a talented actress, but her snidely breaking with Oxfam because they asked her to, you know, stand up for human rights and dignity and whatnot, as you’d expect their ambassadors to do, so she could keep pulling in a little extra cash as SodaStream’s commercial cheesecake really rubbed me the wrong way.

  • LaSargenta

    Lucy Cat must be out there somewhere. Everyone know cats always use 100% of their brains.

  • teufelaffe

    OK, forgot about that dude.

  • Is this movie as racist as the trailers made it look?

  • Yeah, it’s still murder if you shoot someone who’s in the middle of falling to their death because he jumped off a building.

  • There was no reason whatsoever for her to shoot that guy. None. Even if it was “only” in the leg.

  • Apart from the one moment when she shoots a guy for not speaking English — in *Taiwan* — I don’t think it’s particularly any more racist than the typical action flick.

  • teufelaffe

    Oh, I get that, there’s a just definite difference between injuring an innocent person and murdering them.

  • LaSargenta

    Cool! Thank you.

  • David

    This irritates me. I was really looking forward to a Scarlett Johanson (I’m guessing no relation) as superkiller out to wipe out a cabal of evil doers flick but from what I have read it’s a lame pseudo philosophical pretentious bore.

  • David

    See, I’m a bigger fan of her’s because she refused to give into Oxfam’s bullying. She didn’t do that because she wanted extra money, she did it because it was the right thing to do.

  • No relation. “Johanson” (and its variant spellings) is the “Smith” of the Scandinavian realms.

  • James Durand

    2001: A Space Odyssey is one of my very favorite films of all time. Kill Bill and The Matrix are my two favorite films of the past 15 years. So obviously I loved “Lucy”.

  • smegfish

    For some reason I love this film..by the car chase scene it dawned on me that this was gonna be a terrible film so I sat back and got ready to enjoy it for what it was..a train crash with an overly loud soundtrack and it did not fail to disappoint ,at points the thinking part of me tried to surface to get annoyed as the latest gaping hole in plot and logic was thrust onto the screen but the absurdities were so vast cliched and backed by such ridiculous visuals and sound tracks the the laughing side of me soon took over closely followed by the mentally disturbed version of me that got well fed..easily one of the top 10 worst films I have seen, it leaves a feeling in your mind like a bombs gone off, like something indescribable and bad has happened that you cant quite recover from..I have had this feeling before watching what is currently the worst film I have ever seen ..Detention..this is the higher budget version of that..Fantastic…(and Leon was soooo good..)

  • riverman

    this was straight up the dumbest movie I’ve seen all year.

  • Why? What did you think was dumb?

  • You need to go complain to Manhola Dargis.

  • Ridiculous

    It’s a fact check. I’m not complaining. She shot a guy dead in the hospital anyway.

  • You’re fact-checking at the wrong site. *I* made no mention of the cabbie in my review, and if you’d bothered to read the other comments, you’d see that I was referring to the guy in the hospital. (I was not specific in my review in order to avoid spoilers.)

  • Ridiculous

    Please don’t misunderstand. It’s an observation anyway, and in no way reflects upon your article. Sorry for the confusion!

  • Danielm80

    If you go here


    you can comment directly on Manohla Dargis’ review, and learn how she spells her first name, which may lend more credibility to your fact-checking.

  • Ray

    If we used that much of our cerebral capacity we would become less human, more God-like in a sense. We will become less focused on obtaining and more focused on being and becoming.

  • RogerBW

    [citation needed]

  • Ray

    Your review was pretty cruel. But hey, that’s why critics are critics; they lack the ability to create something on their own so they put down someone else’s work.

  • Bluejay

    If you’re not a professional reviewer yourself, you’re not qualified to put down her review. :-)

  • Danielm80

    If I thought you were making a serious comment, I’d point out that authors including John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, Lorrie Moore, T.S. Eliot, and W.H. Auden have written criticism.

    I’d also point out that Lucy is the same movie whether MaryAnn likes it or not. Unless your faith in your own opinion is very fragile, you can continue to like all the things you liked about the film and encourage your friends to see it. You can read reviews by critics whose taste is more in line with yours. And the movie will keep on making money–just not from the percentage of filmgoers who trust MaryAnn’s taste.

    But I’m pretty sure you weren’t making a serious comment. You were tossing out a petty insult, because you can’t stand to have someone disagree with your personal opinion. So you resorted to a very old cliché, even though it has no basis in the real world.

  • You’re hilarious.

  • Mike J

    This review sounds more like you’re butthurt about being called a ten percenter. Like that’s somehow a jab at your intellectual prowess, or lack thereof given that your entire article fails to see the message that is being portrayed in the movie. How Besson has an underlying message to all of the people who enjoy his movies. There’s more important shit going on in the world around us, and being unable or unwilling to stop sniffing your own ass and really look and see that we’re all in this together, with a common purpose, is no excuse for your ignorance.

  • razajac

    Another aspect of the intrusion of Freeman’s character is simply VO as a cheap gimmick.

  • Toto Tata

    With Valerian coming soon, I heard about this movie and wanted to give it a try and I wasn’t disappointed. I was surprised with the critics I read above and below. Maybe it’s the common american way to look at it, I remember the 5th Element was not very well received in the US.

    To me, her power are off course not obviously possible, but why should we care? If we want to believe we can. Does JK Rolling explains why there is magic? How can Superman fly? and all the strange things in the X-Men?

    This kind of movie let you build part of it to see what you want to see. You see her killing/shooting at a cab driver. I see 2 cab drivers stationing in front of the warehouse of the cartel’s boss, so they were aware of what was going on inside and that’s why they were refusing to take her to the hospital. So yes shouting one is the best way to convince the other one to do it regardless of the potential retaliation.

    You think it was most efficient for her to kill all the “bad guys”, and say she wanted revenge on him. To me she did not care at all about them, she only killed people literally on her way. Time was the only priority, not saving the cops who died slowing them down was not an issue. What’s a few life when you feel the life evolving all around the world through time and space? She was everything and ready to give it to us, that’s priceless. I don’t want Besson to try to come up with ridiculous explanation of why she is like that, what was before the big band, etc.

    It’s like in the Little Prince, someone ask for a sheep, you draw him a box and let him visualize the perfect sheep inside. This movie is no more than a fancy box and I love boxes.

  • amanohyo

    Thank you for explaining why you enjoyed the movie and for responding to the review in a mature, thoughtful way. Besson’s movies are a mixed bag – their primary focus is to highlight stylish, sexy action scenes at the expense of a coherent narrative. Because his plots are virtually nonexistent and often nonsensical, the quality of the film rests entirely on the characters’ shoulders. If the human relationship (there’s typically only one in his films) at the core feels genuine, then all that over the top action has the potential to become more than empty eye candy as in Leon, and to a lesser extent Fifth Element and Nikita.

    To some degree, all characters and relationships in movies are stylized plot pushers; however, eventually a character becomes so stylized that they no longer react in a believably human way. This breaking point differs from person to person, but when it happens and the puppet strings become visible, the action on the screen carries very little emotional weight. Some people are willing to sacrifice believable characters if the ideas being explored are interesting or novel (or funny). This often happens in science fiction stories. Unfortunately, there never seem to be any interesting ideas inside of Besson’s scifi boxes.

    From your perspective, the people that dislike this film are ungrateful and lack imagination because they are unwilling to fill this fancy box with their own perfect sheep. However, for many who dislike the film (and style equals substance movies in general) the box is riddled with holes revealing that the filmmakers’ attention and resources have been squandered gilding an obviously empty box. If the viewer is ultimately responsible for supplying the best parts of the movie, then it has failed on some basic level.

    The Little Prince is a great book because the Prince reacts to his situations in a believably human way which makes the reader care about what happens to him and also because its fantastic situations are emotionally grounded and reveal some fundamental truths about the human condition. I could say the same thing about Leon, but this movie… not so much. Clearly you feel differently which is cool – different people have different priorities and tastes. Thank you for taking the time to explain why you enjoyed the movie – your empty box analogy is interesting. There is certainly a point at which chaotic ambiguity becomes provocative enough to stand on its own. I guess mysteriousness is more subjective than I originally thought.

  • Dent

    What did you think?

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