Saturday, July 26, 2014

LUCY in the Sky with Superpowers


I’m tempted to say Luc Besson’s Lucy goes enjoyably off the rails, but it’d be more accurate to say it operates blissfully without knowledge of any tracks whatsoever. It’s a sci-fi thriller that evolves as it goes along, sliding exuberantly into a metaphysical tangle. By the end it is tugging apart the very fabric of existence. So many movies go down familiar tracks it’s a delight to see one that heads off in its own direction. Soon we’re following wild unexpectedness with a protagonist who finds herself increasingly unable to connect with the world in the way the rest of us perceive it. She goes above and beyond quite literally and suddenly, throwing standard thriller plotting into grand, silly loops. It’s a trip.

It all starts familiarly enough. Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) is an American in Taipei who gets kidnapped by a drug lord (Choi Min-Sik). His organization knocks her out, cuts her open, and sticks a bag of experimental synthetic drugs just underneath her stomach. She’s told to smuggle the substance into Europe or else. What no one expected was to have the bag burst, flooding her system with a massive overdose. One of those swoopy CGI fantastic voyage sequences reveals little blue jolts pinballing around her cells, crackling her neurons, and jumpstarting rapid changes. Here’s where the sturdy, if standard, thriller premise bursts open as well, flooding the film with a sci-fi conceit that explodes in unexpected and continually evolving ways.

Because this early overdose sequence is intercut with a professor (Morgan Freeman) lecturing on the untapped capacity of the human brain, a lecture intercut with wildlife stock footage, it’s clear where this is going. Lucy twitches, levitates, and yelps as her eyes turn neon blue, before an eerie calm washes over her. “10%,” says an alert that fills the screen. That number will grow throughout the film as Lucy sets out to stop the drug ring, save herself, and discover what happens when she reaches 100%. The old we-only-use-10%-of-our-brains is a fake fact that circulates now and then, but this movie isn’t interested in the falseness. It takes the idea and runs with it, taking it to a gleeful extreme, exploiting its stoned dorm-room concept for all it’s worth.

The drugs coursing through Lucy’s system give her extraordinary cognitive abilities. She panics until her brain speeds up to accommodate all the new processes it’s running. She’s high, spitting out deep thoughts and staring into space as the substance works through her, preoccupied by her new ability to see matter and energy, visualized as streams of Matrix data and writhing info blasts. She can see to the very foundations of the universe as her brain expands. She’d be a superhero if her power didn’t put her so far above petty human concerns. We can’t see what she sees, though Besson throws her subjective experience on the screen when he’s not holding back to surprise us with a power later. It’s appealingly off-kilter. Still, enough of her humanity fights through to allow her to multitask, trying to unravel the mysteries she’s unlocking and fight her way to the drug lord and bring him to justice.

This being an action film, and a refreshingly fast and economical 90-minute one at that, there are shootouts and car chases. They’re bright and clear, presented with a dash of humor and playfulness. Lucy’s powers allow her to manipulate the world around her. She can stop an assailant in his tracks or anticipate the movements of the cars around her so that she can weave in and out, leaving pursuers crashing and grinding gears blocks away. Besson – a Frenchman who loves American genre filmmaking – has always been interested in films about forceful women who go through changes. There’s little Natalie Portman’s bloodily orphaned girl in The Professional and Milla Jovovich’s reconstructed person in The Fifth Element. But with Lucy, Besson has written and directed a film that becomes engrossingly, excitingly one with its lead.

This is the third film in the last year that plays on Scarlett Johansson’s bombshell qualities and manipulates them to eerie and provocative effect. She’s doing great work maneuvering her screen image, turning it around and inside out for memorable roles. Her Lucy starts as a woman with personality, but her overactive brain threatens to pull her into a mix between Johansson’s disembodied operating system from Her and her icy, inquisitive alien in Under the Skin. She grows more confident, colder and more cerebral as her brain enhances unceasingly. She has to fight for every bit of humanity she manages to express. There’s a scene in which she gets impromptu surgery without anesthesia and makes a phone call at the same time. Yeah, it’s that kind of movie. But she plays it so naturally, a conversation so delicately played, a balance of half-baked philosophizing and heart-rending nostalgia as waves of long forgotten memories are reactivated in her. A single tear rolls down her cheek. It’s pulpy, but moving, too.

This is Besson’s best, most imaginative and entertaining film in quite some time. It’s silly, but everyone commits intensely and the movie willingly builds and shifts into surprising deep visual and cheap philosophical territory, it’s thrilling. The film views Lucy not as threat or even hero, despite retaining rooting interest throughout. She’s a source of curiosity and awe. The movie matches her pace, blasting her percentage points on screen to let us track her evolution. The story frays and shifts as it keeps up with her, as conventional cops and smugglers plotting resolves itself parallel to the thought experiment that’s followed to dazzling heights of strangeness and surprise.

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