Lucy begins in two very odd places: on a microscopic stage with several splitting cells doing a glowing mambo, and 3 million years ago as a shaggy cavewoman sips water from a river. What happens next is a science thriller so bananas that to explain it thoroughly would require lectures from Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking and Neil deGrasse Tyson, with visual annotations from John Woo, Quentin Tarantino and Terrence Malick. And possibly drugs.
The movie is directed by Luc Besson, whose films have wavered in quality over the years, but his command of the language of film has always been impeccably fluent and precise. Recall the immediacy of La Femme Nikita or the rhythmic editing of shots and music in Léon. His plots don’t always find their marks, but the journeys they provide are rarely boring. And here he might have outdone himself with a sci-fi flick so dementedly high-minded that it will draw serious comparisons to Malick’s Tree of Life, or maybe just a version re-edited with more kung-fu, gunfights and enough spacey cracked-out science theories to make Bill Nye's bowtie twirl.
Lucy is bonkers. It's settings include Taiwan, France and the Eagle Nebula — seriously. Its weapons include guns, knives and inky brain matter that devours a whole laboratory. The title character speaks dialogue usually said between bags of Funyuns, but here she is entirely genuine when she says, "I can feel space, gravity, the rotation of the earth, my own brain … I remember the sound of my bones growing." The film ends when a character is literally absorbed into the space-time fabric of the universe. "Bonkers" doesn't seem to cover it all in this case.
All this cosmic lunacy is caused by a synthetic drug ingested by Lucy (Scarlett Johansson), a party girl caught up in the wrong place at the wrong time. The crystallized blue drug, when consumed in just the right way, allows the brain to access more and faster computing power in the firing synapses of the mind. Humans use no more than 10 percent of their brains. Dolphins, for comparison purposes, use 20 percent — the extra 10 percent gives them the ability of echolocation. So, the movie reasons, just think of what would happen if humans could go to 20, or 50 or even 100 percent. Lucy pushes that envelope until she becomes a god. And Besson's movie is her Genesis.
But before it gets all theoretical and trippy, especially in its final 20 minutes, Lucy is a rather straightforward action thriller. Lucy — the woman, not the movie — is told to deliver a metal case to drug kingpin Mr. Jang (Min-sik Choi from the original Old Boy), whose consideration of human life is negligible. The scene is perfect Besson: Lucy is handcuffed to the case and told, through a telephone interpreter, that she must open it. But before she pops the lid, Mr. Jang and his crew of henchmen all stand behind armored shields, never a good sign. Later, Lucy has the drugs sewn into her belly for smuggling abroad. The plan is going smooth until a wayward kick from a handler dislodges the drugs and sets Lucy on her metaphysical journey through all of Einstein's theories.
But before she goes all omniscient, some smaller miracles happen: she gains the ability to distort and manipulate matter, control other humans and also distort time. She can also see electrical and magnetic fields, which provides a beautiful visual: Lucy plucking electric strings that are the wireless signals for all of Paris. Her new powers of perception allow for a spirited wrong-way chase through France. She can also see inside bodies and minds, change her hair style the way most people refresh their browser windows, and make guns disintegrate in the hands of her enemies. What does your brain capacity have to do with manipulating matter in this manner? I have no clue, but Lucy is a believer so just roll with it.
The movie is slickly edited and shot, and Besson throws in all kinds of inserts, time lapses, B-roll and nature footage to prove his points. When Lucy is in danger, we see two cheetahs eyeing a stray antelope, or a mouse circling a mousetrap. A reference to sex cuts to a shots of animals getting it on. When Lucy begins "colonizing her brain," the entire universe unfolds before her with animation, space imagery and even more time-lapse shots. This will be the most famous scene in the movie — equivalent to the Star Gate sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey — as Lucy swipes her hand in front of her, like she’s using God’s iPad, and time creeps backward to the 1960s, then the 1800s and then quicker until the continents mash together, the dinosaur-killing comets are sucked back into space and organic matter sinks into lava-spewing volcanoes. But as if that weren’t enough, we zip into space to witness black holes, the birth of the galaxy, the Big Bang and what might be the first particle of anything ever. Ambitious? Lucy has everything. Literally everything.
That being said, Lucy is still awkwardly paced. Some of the action is anti-climactic, and much of the non-action just kinda sits there with nothing to do. The ending, which I adored, is so obscure that some audience members would likely rage-quit out of the theater if the movie didn't abruptly evaporate into the ether first. Oh and Morgan Freeman's in it doing everything you'd expect a Morgan Freeman cardboard cutout to do. I wanted him to have a larger role. Johansson is fun, though. She's grown more familiar with high-octane action flicks, and here she seems to be purring with wonder, even as the camera hovers over her universe-filled eyeballs.
Besson deserves a lot of the credit for Lucy's audacious ideas. He walked to the edge of the galaxy to fish out this bizarre action-science hybrid. I'm grateful that movies like this are made, even if their ideas are as nutty as a Baby Ruth. And about that zaniness: yeah, it's all bogus, but surrender your brain at the door. Or at least 90 percent of it.