“Hi. My name is thornhill and I’m a Luc Besson film junkie.”
“It’s been two days since my last Besson film… My addiction was created when I first saw “The Professional”, a strange, violent, highly orchestrated film about a professional hitman (Jean Reno) protecting a little girl (Natalie Portman) who witnesses a murder. It was and is a very different film from most other Hollywood action films. The violence is more extreme, the acting is both broader and more refined in some ways, the story is more interesting and involving, it also has a distinctly European flavor. With “The Professional” I became hooked on the director’s films…”
And throughout the years, Besson’s work has become more and more like the Hollywood studio work that so clearly influenced him in the early days making the films less interesting and less exciting. But there is still, usually, a handful of elements that helps to make his work better than your typical Hollywood action film. His work lately has been more hit and miss – he seems to be as enamored of sequels as your typical Hollywood producer, cranking them through the machine just to generate more money. As a producer, writer and/ or director, he has worked on an incredible number of film and television projects before handing them off to someone else and letting them take the reins. “Taken 3” is coming soon, based on a screenplay he created. “Transporter 4”, “5” and “6” are all in the works, as well as a television version, based on his idea and screenplays for the first few films. When it comes to the actual films he writes, produces and directs, they are a bit more spotty of late.
Did you know that humans typically use about 10% of the capacity of their brain? Dolphins use about 20% which is how they were able to develop the sonar they use. This is the beginning of the conversation providing the framework for “Lucy”, Besson’s newest film starring Scarlett Johannson.
Three things happen almost concurrently throughout the first half of the film. Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman), an expert in neurolinguistics, gives a lecture to a rapturous audience at a university in Paris, providing the framework for the first half of the film. He talks about what might happen if a human were able to use 10%, 20%, more of their potential brain power. These moments are cut into the story of Lucy, a young American student living in Taiwan who appears to be using about 5% of her potential brain power when she starts dating Richard (Pilou Asbaek), the type of guy who you look at and know he is involved in some bad stuff. They are standing outside of a luxury hotel; Richard wants Lucy to take the briefcase he is holding to the front desk and deliver it to Mr. Jang (Min-sik Choi). She doesn’t want to, she has to get ready for school on Monday. He handcuffs the briefcase to her wrist and forces her to go inside. Things go very wrong and Mr.Jang decides Lucy will be one of four couriers to bring a bag of a new, very potent drug back to their homelands. They will, of course, have the bags surgically implanted in their stomachs. Lucy wakes up and notices the sutures on her stomach, then she wakes up again in a jail cell. Her captors kick her around a bit, causing the bag to leak and start to affect her brain. Thus begins the countdown. As Lucy’s brain achieves a new level of functionality, that percentage appears on screen. Strangely, Besson also cuts in a lot of nature shots of animals mating, hunting, killing, etc. This is Besson’s way of creating an almost subliminal montage reinforcing the messages Norman discusses with his seminar participants. These three elements, intertwined for the first forty or so minutes, create an unusual, but interesting narrative which holds your attention.
This is the second film dealing with similar subject matter I have seen in three months. In “Transcendence”, Johnny Depp plays a scientist developing an artificial intelligence computer. He is physically hooked up to the computer and uses the knowledge of the computer and the internet to begin to control his environment. Basically, because he has no body to hinder him, he is able to use all of his energy to gain knowledge, to gain control, to gain power. “Lucy” follows a similar idea; unleashing the brain’s full potential. And both films have flaws leading them to shut down faster than you can press and hold the power button on your computer.
At 10%, Lucy is a typical, not very intelligent college student living in a foreign country because they have the freedom to party and party some more. Her boyfriend Richard pressures her to do something that puts her on a new course, putting her in the sights of some very dangerous men. After an altercation, the drug allows her to begin using 20% of her brain power. Watching her make this realization and use this new, expanded brain capacity is fun. She quickly breaks out of her captor’s environment and tries to set things right – she visits another American friend to use her computer and read all the research Professor Norman has ever written before contacting him.
When Lucy gets to about 50% capacity, Besson begins to explore territory that he doesn’t sufficiently (if at all) ground in the narrative and Lucy’s quest begins to fall apart. At one point, Lucy teams up with a French cop (Amr Wakeed) who hesitantly accepts she has some unique powers when he sees her levitate a group of men to the ceiling, each of the big guys struggling to get down. When they are about to have a huge showdown with a bunch of criminals, Lucy asks him if he and the police can hold the gangsters off, so she can concentrate on her next task. Lucy is, by this point, using a very high percentage of her brain power. If, as Norman has explained, she can control many things, why can’t she hold the men off and complete her task? Just a few moments earlier, she disabled an entire group of gangsters simply by waving her hand. Holding off a new bunch of bad guys shouldn’t be that tasking. Not to mention that in leaving the safety of these people to the cops, she is putting innocent people in harm’s way. It is an example of an action that doesn’t appear to be completely thought out. Is this going to be the new sci-fi genre that replaces Time Travel as the genre with the most discussed inconsistencies? Will the abilities of neurocomputers replace discussions about causing a time rift when you meet yourself in the past or future?
So, there are problems with the ‘science’ of “Lucy”. But there are also problems with the narrative of the film. After Lucy has the surgery, she wakes up in a luxury hotel room moments before Mr. Jang’s men grab her and force her to line- up with the three other mules. Moments later, she wakes up, alone, in a jail cell surrounded by a new group of Taiwanese men. Huh? How did she end up in a jail cell? Why? If Mr. Jang is the fearsome man he is – and he is, there is plenty of evidence – how did someone else capture Lucy and put her in a jail cell? If it is Jang’s men who captured her, why? You would think he would want her to get to her destination as quickly as possible, so he could retrieve the drugs and get his men selling them. Once she does break out, using her increased brain capacity, you begin to get an idea of what is in store for Lucy and our journey with her – her mind is working at a different level than ours, she can see, hear, feel things we can’t.
For the ninety minutes of the film, we get maybe ten when Johannson is actually able to create a character. She isn’t that likable, because she appears dumb and way too concerned with partying but this is fine – not every character has to be likable - but she doesn’t really grow or evolve into anything else. As soon as the drugs are implanted, Lucy becomes a hybrid-ized warrior and in Besson’s eyes, this must mean she has to also become emotionless. Throughout, she simply stares into the horizon (looking at all of the streams of data she is now able to see) and speaks in a monotone. It is difficult to feel anything for her because she appears to be a bit of a robot.
Morgan Freeman does the wise-sage role he should really copyright because he has played it so many times. In fact, he was also in “Transcendence” playing more or less the same character. Lucy forces him to quickly accept what she has to say – Besson never messes around with his narratives, if he says something is true, it’s true. Late in the film, when he finally meets Lucy face to face, he seems to stare at her in awe, watching her mind work. When did he lose all of the scientific skepticism he has built up for his entire career?
Besson has a lot of fun with Mr. Jang. As soon as Lucy enters his hotel room, we see visual clues to the level of his ruthlessness. Min-sik Choi has a lot of fun playing the evil, determined crime boss, infuriated more because a young American girl is getting the better of him.
“Lucy” is a film with a lot of unique visuals and some good action scenes, but the narrative can’t support it and ultimately falls apart.
“Hi. My name is thornhill and I’m a Luc Besson film junkie.”
“It’s been two days since my last Besson film…”