REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER
For 21st Century Media
Are you familiar with the skeletal remains of the prehistoric creature, dubbed Lucy? In 1974, paleontologists, Donald Johanson and Tom Gray, made a groundbreaking discovery. They excavated several hundred bone fragments at Hadar in Ethiopia’s Awar Valley. That evening, as the duo were celebrating their fortuitous find, the Beatles’ tune, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” was playing in the background. Hence, they lovingly affixed a human name, Lucy, to this precursor of our species.
The bones, which date back more than three million years, have subsequently been identified as the remains of a hominin precursor of our species. You wouldn’t be keen on inviting Lucy and her kin over for a backyard barbecue or engaging in a philosophical discussion with them on the respective merits of Kant and Wittgenstein. No indeed, these hairy little homunculoid creatures were incapable of rational thought as we know it.
So … what does any this have to do with “Lucy,” a film with a contemporary setting? Doesn’t Scarlett Johansson play a modern, 21st century woman, not an early hominim? Sure enough, but the protagonist’s namesake plays a pivotal role in this film, in which human evolution figures ever so prominently. In case there is any doubt, an opening vignette depicts a female hominim, squatting by a stream. A subsequent scene revisits our proto-human ancestor and buttresses the film’s acknowledged connection to her.
We zoom forward to the present. Lucy (Johansson) is a vapid American student, studying on the Chinese island of Taiwan, while frequenting the local club scene. Standing on a sidewalk outside of a high-rise deluxe hotel, she is engaged in a verbal dispute with her recent fling, Richard (Danish actor, Pilou Asbaek). He is a decidedly smarmy man with a generic Eurotrash accent. Richard is trying to cajole her into delivering a locked briefcase filled with indeterminate contents to Kang (Korean actor, Min-sik Choi), a resident of the hotel. When Lucy demurs, he handcuffs the briefcase to her wrist. Now, she has no choice — only Kang has a key to unlock the handcuffs.
In short order, we learn that Kang is the ruthless head of an international drug cartel, which is distributing CPH4 wordwide. The synthetic blue powder purportedly expands the capacity of the human brain in wondrous ways.
Kang and his crew have little regard for human lives, particularly those of Eurocentrics. After abducting Lucy and four men, he has packets of this new-fangled drug surgically sewn into their abdominal cavities. They have all been converted into involuntary drug mules.
This boffo early scene is the first of many in this hyperviolent film. It should serve as a caveat to the squeamish. Much carnage follows, well-compressed into this fast-paced, non-stop affair by writer/director, Luc Besson (“La Femme Nikita,” “Fifth Element”).
We then segue to a lecture by acclaimed academic, Dr. Norman (Morgan Freeman). The audience is riveted by the professor’s erudite analysis of human evolution. He intones, “There are more communications between our cells than there are stars in the sky.” However, Dr. Norman laments that we only use a mere 10 percent of our brain’s capacity. This is a scientific fallacy. It would be more accurate to say that we use approximately 10 percent of our brain much of the time. However, the actor recites the oft-cited mythology with such singular gravitas that it proves convincing. Dr. Norman questions what would happen if we humans harnessed the entire latent potential of our brains?
The bag with mind-expanding drug, which has been sewn into Lucy’s gut, becomes inadvertently perforated. As the drug reaches Lucy’s neocortex, Professor Norman’s lofty postulations about the capacity of the human brain soon have a real-world laboratory. Joined by a French policeman, Inspector Pierre Del Rio (Egyptian actor, Amr Waked), Lucy aggressively pursues Kang and his minions.
The film adopts a certain wild-eyed lunacy. Aided by the new drug, Lucy’s brain can scan thousands of pages of abstruse scientific journal articles at a single glance, analyze radiographs with stunning precision, and perform other extraordinary intellectual feats. OK, these activities all have an underlying cerebrotonic component. So, if someone’s brain activity was pharmaceutically enhanced, perhaps they could somehow perform them.
However, how does the drug confer Lucy with ESP or the ability to travel though time, jump continents, and interface with a sub-Saharan hominim of a bygone epoch? How about the capacity to make the bullets spontaneously dislodge from the AK-47s of Kang’s gang members or the ability to levitate them to the ceiling? Did I mention that she can also control electromagnetic waves and is immune to pain? The protagonist’s newfound powers infuse the film with a certain manic energy, a feminist vibe, and some seemingly unintentional moments of jocularity.
The film boasts an incredible array of cutting-edge visual effects, including vivid depictions of cellular reproduction, functions within the human body, and predators stalking their prey. These are not gratuitous CGI addenda. In addition to the sensory wallop these images pack, they help convey the film’s high-minded notions and form an impressive synergy with the narrative text. The cinematography by frequent Besson collaborator, Thierry Arboagat, and evocative score by Eric Serra also merit plaudits.
Some will no doubt castigate “Lucy” as an absurdly farfetched mess, beset with numerous conceptual lapses. I can’t mount a convincing counter-argument to offset this criticism.
This is a summer littered with solipsistic, self-indulgent releases, which are nowhere near as smart as they that purport to be. By contrast, “Lucy” is a film that is gleefully propelled by a dubious premise, developed with great rigor and extraordinary craftsmanship.
My recommendation to you? Just disregard your brain’s protestations, accept the film’s wacky central premise, and enjoy the wild, visually spellbinding ride that “Lucy” offers.
*** ½ R (for strong violence, disturbing images, and sexuality) 90 minutes
Nathan Lerner sees more than 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at email@example.com.