I suppose the best way to write about my having seen Lucy would be as a warning about the dangers of conformism, my own.
I’m riding my bike home from the park. At home, on my desk, are Cheyenne Autumn by John Ford, Ludwig, by Luchino Visconti, and Lawrence Olivier’s Hamlet. I have a Spanish translation of Romeo and Juliet and an English translation of The Open Veins of Latin America. But nobody in the United States goes to see good movies, or reads good books anymore. All the cool, smart, successful people on the Internet are talking about the latest HBO mini series, or writing long, earnest critical analysis of whether or not Ben Affleck’s going to make a decent Batman. To follow your mind where it leads down the convoluted maze of western high culture is to invite social isolation, to make yourself unfit to live in company of decent, middle-class people. So when I road past a local movie theater showing “Lucy” I locked my bike up to a heavy iron garbage can, bought a ticket, and went inside to make an offering to the popular taste.
Cut to an unnamed Asian city. Lucy, Scarlett Johannson, the A-list Hollywood movie star with puffed up lips and a deep, husky voice — call her the Angelina Jolie of her generation — is talking to some random dirt bag, her boyfriend. Oh why don’t girls go for nice guys anymore? He wants her to deliver a suitcase to a drug lord named Mr. Jang. She doesn’t want to. He says yes. She says no. Finally, he reaches out and handcuffs the suitcase to her wrist and tells her that only Mr. Jang has the combination. So she agrees to do it. I personally would have run to the nearest hardware store and bought a hacksaw, but that’s only me. I use more than 10% of my brain. Lucy, apparently, doesn’t, at least not yet. She walks into the hotel lobby — her boyfriend is gunned down outside on the sidewalk for some reason I couldn’t quite figure out — and goes up to Jang’s hotel room to deliver the suitcase to a menacing group of Asian men, all of whom wear Armani, none of whom speak English.
We cut to the United States. Morgan Freeman is delivering some kind of TED Talk about how we don’t experience life to the fullest because we only use 10% of our brains. If we could use more of our brains, he tells the rapt audience of the best and the brightest, we would not only have better memories and better skills at math, we might possibly develop the ability to manipulate matter telepathically and absorb information through osmosis. Freeman’s TED talk made me wonder who the target audience for Lucy is? After all, the idea of intellectual superiority is used to justify all kinds of atrocities these days. Wall Street had the right to steal a 800 billion dollars from the American taxpayers because they’re all Harvard grads who are good at math. The Israelis have the right to murder Palestinians in Gaza because they’ve won more Nobel Prizes. Google’s techies have the right to displace people from their homes in San Francisco because they’re smarter and more deserving. I for one don’t want to see people get smarter. I want to see them get more compassionate. But who am I to argue with Morgan Freeman?
Scarlett Johannson, as most of the critics have pointed out, is a good actress, and a charismatic presence, and she does the most with the lines she’s given to read, but there’s really not much to work with. The suitcase — and sadly there are no jokes about it having been the suitcase in Pulp Fiction — contains packets of a drug called CPH4 that can increase the user’s brain function capacity. Drugs making you smarter? Perhaps Luc Besson wrote the film for hippies, not Wall Streeters. In any event, the gangsters have the drugs sewn into Lucy’s stomach — the better to smuggle them into the United States and Europe I suppose — and one of their security goons kicks her in the side. She absorbs the CPH4 and quickly develops the superpowers Morgan Freeman had predicted. She manipulates matter telepathically. She remembers random events from her childhood. She now has total control of her subconscious. Besson restages the opening of 2001, and allows Lucy to go back in time and check out the beginnings of human life on earth. She even has access to the collective subconscious of the planet.
Lucy cost 41 million dollars to make, but I’m not sure what Besson spent the money on. I suppose Scarlett Johannson and Morgan Freeman command hefty salaries, but there’s nothing particular innovative about the film’s imagery, plot, or set pieces that seem very pricy. There are some animal images. There aren’t a lot of location shots. Most of it was filmed in a studio in Paris. There’s a lot of fairly competent if not exactly ground breaking CGI. It’s all very dull and very derivative. At least the mediocre Her, also starring Scarlett Johannson, had a few creative set designs and some imaginative city scapes. We’ve seen it all before. Scarlett Johansson is Darth Vader, or Yoda. She’s Carrie. She can move objects around with her mind. She’s any one of any number of characters in any one of the Star Trek franchises. She’s Fred/Illyeria — played by Amy Acker, a much better actress than Johansson — from the fifth season of Angel. The only thing that’s new about he character is that the more the drugs work, the closer she becomes to a god. 20%, 30%, 40%, as her mental powers increase and her body threatens to decompose, Morgan Freeman convinces her to use her superhuman intellect for the good of mankind. She creates a new model of supercomputer with her mind, uploads what she’s learned, and copies it to a flash drive. Thankfully the new model of supercomputer had a USB port. She disappears and leaves a note. “I’m everywhere,” it says.
I suppose, in the end, Luc Besson wrote Lucy as attempt to get the superhuman “job creators” and “masters of the universe” to use their super brains for good. Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, Larry Summers, they’ve all got money and intelligence that mere mortals like the rest of us can only dream of. Maybe Luc Besson is asking them to be more like Lucy, to become super philanthropists, and share their enlightenment with the 99 percent. Perhaps Besson is just a French version of Ralph Nader, who once published a novel called “Only The Super Rich Can Save Us.” Being French, unlike the prissy little celibate Ralph Nader, Monsieur Besson has an especially keen appreciation for a deep, husky voice, puffed up duck lips, and a superior female body that looks good in a pair of heels. La Femme Nikita? The Fifth Element? And now Lucy? Only the super hot can save us? Scarlett Johansson, in between doing commercials for Soda Stream, is as good a Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as anyone.
As for me, I’ve had enough. Never again will I see a film that only requires me to use 5% of my brain. I’ve learned my lesson. And I’m sticking to it. I’m not going to condemn professional cultural critics for writing about Game of Thrones, Batman, or Miley Cyrus twerking. They have to pay the rent, after all. But I don’t have to. Bresson, not Besson, I’m going back to good movies most Americans have never heard of, the more obscure, the better.