Scarlett Johansson Is A Drugged-Up Psycho Genius In ‘Lucy’, Continues To Kill It In General

It's also a great movie if you switch your brain off, ironically.

In the new sci-fi action head-trip Lucy, Scarlett Johansson stars as a hard-partying American in Taiwan who accidentally ingests some mind-altering drugs. When her shady boyfriend ropes her in to delivering a briefcase to some ruthless Korean gangsters, Lucy is knocked out and sewed up with a suspicious-looking bag of blue powder in her stomach.

After said bag breaks open in a pre-transit beating, Lucy has to grapple with a set of rapidly evolving superpowers, including hyper-intelligence and total command over space and time – a conceit the film hangs on the old claim that humans normally only use ten percent of their brain.

Even now some of you out there are pausing to declare “um, excuse me, human actually do use 100% of their brains already”. Well, stop that. You’re boring even yourselves. If it’s any help, the rest of the film’s science — including telekinesis and cosmic USB sticks — is even more ridiculous. It has all the weight of the ramblings of a weed-infused university student at 4.00am and that’s absolutely the way it should be.

Scarlett Johansson Is The New Liam Neeson

At a breezy 89 minutes, the film is more concerned with being a kinetically inspired action trip than offering any coherent philosophy. The writer-director here is French blockbuster maven Luc Besson, the producing mastermind behind practically every second Europe-set action film from the last decade, including 3 Days to Kill, From Paris with Love, and Liam Neeson’s Taken franchise.

Lucy is something of a return to sci-fi form for Besson, who, after The Fifth Element became a hit in 1997, has only occasionally ventured out of his writing and producing duties to direct.

Like The Fifth Element’s Leeloo (played with memorable intensity by Milla Jovovich), Lucy has a wide-eyed, fast-learning, super-intelligent, kick-ass female lead at its centre. But Johansson imbues her part with a dry humour. Her defining role as an actor is still probably Charlotte, the melancholic American abroad in Lost in Translation, where Sofia Coppola provided the perfect niche for Johansson’s sleepy, deadpan affect. Subsequent films have required her to be a great deal more exercised, not always to her apparent comfort as a performer.

Nevertheless, in recent years she has determinedly been pulling a Neeson; undertaking the profitable excursion of the art-house-accredited thespian into the turbulent waters of action movies (it’s fitting that Lucy teams her with Besson, the man who gave Neeson his own particular set of skills). Johansson was second banana to Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark in Iron Man 2, and then co-banana to whole bunch of people in The Avengers. She made an able sparring partner for Chris Evans in another Marvel sequel, this year’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier, in which her Black Widow character flourished as a spiky second lead out from the shadow of Downey’s overweening charisma.

But if she’s been Neeson-ing in the multiplexes, she’s also been Reagan-ing in the art-houses. The past two years have seen the release of Her — in which she gave a vocals-only turn as an AI partner to Joaquin Phoenix that was as rich and full-bodied as any other performance that year — as well as Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, in which she plays a man-trapping extraterrestrial prowling the wilds of Scotland. Glazer’s film is hypnotically, entrancingly strange, but Johansson grounds it with a wonderfully reserved portrayal of her curious alien (reserved, that is, except when she’s flirting with the unsuspecting men whom she lures back to an Edinburgh home to do –- well, it’s hard to explain).

Under the Skin, in fact, makes for an amusing sibling to Lucy. In one, Johansson plays an alien becoming more human, in the other a human becoming more alien. Both films play toward Johansson’s core strengths as an actor. The early parts of Lucy, when she has to play terrorised and confused, are not Johansson’s natural terrain. But when the drugs kick in, she starts to communicate Lucy’s enhanced brain capacity with a flat, almost emotionless affect – which has the added benefit of lending a bit of dry humour to the general craziness going on. Speeding down a one-way Parisian street, Lucy reassures her terrified passenger that “we never really die”; a slice of cosmic wisdom delivered with all the passion of a fast food order.

Superhero Antics With A Friendly Spirit

There’s nothing quite as out there in Lucy as the fabulous opera concert from The Fifth Element, but that spirit is alive and well here nonetheless. Lucy isn’t as gorgeous as The Fifth Element—its real-world naturalism feels slightly under-styled, and it suffers from some soapy looking digital photography—but it has the same French bande dessinée visual sensibility that elevated that earlier film. By the time Johansson is mutating like Tetsuo at the end of Akira and building a spiky-looking super-computer with her mind, the film has become too silly to resist.

Lucy is something like a mash-up of Besson’s Euro-thrillers with a Marvel superhero movie, and a generous — and unexpected — lashing of Natural Geographic documentary. Besson intersperses some of the more consciousness-expanding narrative moments with anthropological footage of human cities, as if to underline that Lucy’s journey is our own possibility as a species. He also cheekily intercuts Lucy’s initial entrapment by the gangsters with footage of cheetahs hunting down their prey on an African savannah. This cheerfully blunt visual wit doesn’t let up, and it helps give the whole ridiculous edifice of the film’s conceit an easy palatability.

Also helpful: Besson has roped in Morgan Freeman to deliver the bulk of the film’s pseudo-science, and Freeman genially employs all the considerable force of his gravitas. It would be easy for an actor to slum in a film like this, but Freeman pulls his weight. As does Johansson, who absolutely nails a mid-film speech in which Lucy calls her mother to give a tearful farewell and, rather than labour over the sorrow and fear of parting, delivers a heartfelt paean to parental love.

In fact, the film has a surprisingly warm streak of humanism. The drugs are killing Lucy, but she’s not just out for revenge. By the mid-point of the film her true goal is surviving long enough to pass on her newfound universal insights to future generations –- a mission of selfless, world-enhancing generosity that sets her quite at odds with other movie superheroes, like Johansson’s Avengers teammate Tony Stark. The character Lucy may be all brain, but the film is all heart.

Lucy opens in Australia on July 31.

James Robert Douglas is a freelance writer and critic in Melbourne. His work has been found in The Big Issue, Meanland, Screen Machine, and the Meanjin blog. He tweets from @jamesrobdouglas.

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