Lucy review

There’s a unusual groove to Luc Besson’s Lucy that you will either slide right into or be thrown completely off-kilter by. This is one of those movies that’s especially rare in commercial filmmaking, one that feels so utterly esoteric and singular that it would be hard to imagine any grey area in the audience’s reaction. You’re either going to love it or hate it, and I most certainly fell into the former camp.

Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) begins the film as a somewhat ditzy student who is meant to be studying in Taipei, but seems to spend most of her time partying and trying to have a good time. She’s tricked by her short term boyfriend (Pilou Asbaek) into delivering a package to the hotel room of the sinister Mr. Jang (Choi Min-sik), which gets her caught up with a drug smuggling ring.

In order to turn Lucy into a mule for the mysterious drug CPH4, the smugglers sew a package into her abdomen. When one of her captors beats her up the drug begins to leak into her system.

The compound then starts to have some very powerful effects on Lucy, the first of which are enjoyably illustrated using a new spin on a familiar camera trick. Using techniques that go way back to Stanley Donen’s superb Royal Wedding, Luc Besson turns Lucy’s world upside down.

There’s some pseudoscience to the drug and it’s inherently silly but there’s little reason for it to get in the way; Besson sets up the film’s interior logic early on and sticks to his guns. We learn the rules through a series of cross cuts between Lucy’s story and a speech by Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman) who is explaining that we only utilise 10% of our cerebral capacity, and that if that percentage were to increase then the results would be quite extraordinary. Of course, the CPH4 coursing through Lucy’s veins is doing just this to Lucy, slowly increasing the percentage of mental faculties she has access to. The percentage unlocked so far is regularly displayed on screen for the audience.

And as her brainpower counts up, time is counting down. Lucy comments early on that she doesn’t expect to live beyond twenty-four hours, which triggers the well-known ‘race against time’ B-movie narrative, a hyperactive riff on Rudolph Mate’s D.O.A.

This is all amounts to a rather preposterous set-up, especially if you were looking for the science of Lucy to match that of the real world, but the veracity of Norman’s claims are accepted as fact within the film and everything spins off from there.

And boy, does it spin off. Wildly.

Much of Lucy makes use of associative editing, with Besson using his cuts to juxtapose pairs and series of images to suggest non-literal meanings. This technique has been used many times in comedy, sometimes to illustrate things that can’t otherwise be shown on screen – think of trains going into tunnels in chaste Hollywood movies. At first, Besson employs the technique to similarly arch and amusing ends, but later starts to get more experimental.

An early example, for instance, sees a shot of Lucy being persuaded to deliver the package cut with another of a mouse approaching a trap. Then, as Lucy enters the hotel, Besson cuts back and forth between her crossing the lobby and a wild cat hunting down its prey on an open plain.

This point of comparison is further accentuated in Johansson’s costuming, with changes to her wardrobe later taking on even more significance. The details have been very precisely constructed.

The hunting sequence is a pretty direct piece of association – reminiscent, perhaps, of Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers – but, much like everything else about Lucy, Besson doesn’t hold back at all. He takes the technique and runs absolutely wild with it.

Eventually, we’re seeing far more impressionistic examples of this editing approach. And much like the French artists and style that defined impressionism in fine art, Besson is interested in vibrancy, not in hiding his brush strokes. Every abrupt cut to a visually striking swirling vortex or organic cell dividing could present a bump of cognitive dissonance, but the sum of the parts is what’s important here, and Besson most certainly has everything in hand.

Even as Lucy’s journey to a higher state accelerates and the film enters a final section that recalls everything from Altered States to Brainstorm, or The Tree of Life to the Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite episode of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the film is still technically grounded and told in a visually and aurally coherent manner. A late car chase, for instance, is expertly staged and whilst incredibly rapidly edited, entirely spatially readable.

Even as Lucy approaches her highest state of consciousness, Besson still finds elegant and simple ways of keeping the audience engaged with the character’s actions. The way in which she swipes with her hand to journey through time and space is pretty goofy on paper but it very effectively visualises the concept in a way that is very easy for an audience to understand.

Our emotional engagement with Lucy is put at the forefront early on, with an unbroken shot in which Lucy talks to her mother about the early stages of her ‘evolved’ experience. She explains that she can now feel every memory in her head, right down to the taste of her mother’s breast milk from when she was an infant.

Johansson has more than adequate acting chops to pull off that kind of tricky, audaciously conceived dialogue and as tears begin to roll down her face it’s not hard to feel more than a little moved.

Our connection with Lucy is key to the success of the film, and even when, in the later scenes, her actions threaten to become less empathetic and her movements more robotic, Besson intelligently slips in traces of her remaining humanity.

This is not to say that Lucy is a character piece. Besson keeps things pretty simple, for the most part, with most of the characters merely representing easy to understand archetypes. Even still, when Lucy is relying on simplicity it’s doing so for expediency, not for dumbing down.

I’m not convinced that Besson, who also wrote Lucy, actually has a great deal to say about any of these high-minded ideas regarding human consciousness, at least not beyond the kind of philosophising one might encounters amidst a haze of smoke in a university halls of residence. The same goes for many of the highly regarded sci-fi flicks of the sixties and seventies, of course; psychedelic science-fiction rarely has anything specific and logically cogent to say but its opening up of grand ideas and ambitious storytelling are often what really matters. In Lucy, the metaphysical navel gazing is just extra colour in an already hyper-vibrant work; it doesn’t go anywhere, but that only means there’s a little less to actually chew on than perhaps Besson thinks there is.

I have no doubt that some will be turned off somewhat by Lucy’s pulpy high concept but Besson has entirely committed to it and delivered a hugely enjoyable, very engaging psychotropic action thriller. My mouth was left agape on many an occasion – what an utter delight.

Lucy is already out in US cinemas and will be released in UK cinemas on the 22nd of August.