Friday, July 25, 2014

“Lucy” – You got some ‘splaining to do.

I didn’t know who Luc Besson was until about two years ago. That doesn’t mean I hadn’t seen any of his work over the years; just that I had never heard his name. As a matter of fact, I’d seen some of his more well-known flicks – The Professional, The Fifth Element, and The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, to name three. I liked all three of those flicks and The Professional might be one of the best movies of the last twenty years. After The Messenger, Besson got away from directing and started focusing almost exclusively on writing and producing. He was involved in a ton of movies from 2000 to 2010, with only a couple of notable hits – Transporter and Taken. In 2012, one of the worst movies ever written, and not just of those by Besson, was released in Lockout (of which Besson was both writer and producer) and Besson was suddenly on my radar. Lockout was quickly followed up by the completely unnecessary Taken 2. While Taken 2 was a commercial success, one would have thought Besson had hit a creative rock bottom at that point, but then 2014’s Brick Mansions happened and Besson proved that rock bottom is far lower than anyone thought possible. To be fair, 3 Days to Kill (which released in February, 2014) was at least watchable, if not outright entertaining, but that seemed more like an accident at this point in Besson’s career.

When I saw the first trailer for Lucy, I was a little blown away. It promised Scarlett Johansson becoming super smart and telekinetic and looked like a high-concept action flick, revolving around the mythological concept that humans only use 10% of their brains. Then, I saw that Besson was responsible for writing and directing Lucy and suddenly, I was blown back to where I started. At first, I tried to convince myself that maybe Besson was getting back to his strength – writing a movie exploring characters (like he did in those early three films) and judiciously inserting action scenes. Lucy seemed like the perfect character to explore and I thought the movie might be akin to a superhero origin story. You know what I mean – a character suddenly has super powers and must learn how to deal with them. Unfortunately, Besson was having none of that, writing a screenplay composed mostly of forced action sequences and scant character motivation, wasting a chance to go all Professional on us like we’d hoped.

(If you are one of the many people looking forward to seeing this movie, stop reading now or skip to the rating at the bottom. Then, go see the movie. Then, come back and the following SPOILERS will not be spoilers.)

The two comparable movies to Lucy that immediately sprung to mind were Limitless and The Lawnmower Man – both of them employing the same concept as Lucy in enabling a person to use more of their brain or enhancing their intelligence with a magic serum. Limitless was a complete waste of a movie, telling us that no matter how smart a person is, they must always resort to killing someone to solve whatever problem confronts them. The Lawnmower Man did a much better job of exploring the evolution of the main character, though it turned a lot of people off with its incorporation of virtual reality and Job morphing into a digital murderer. Lucy falls much closer to Limitless, though Lucy is at least entertaining as an action vehicle and doesn’t feature the artist formerly known as Robert De Niro.

I’d love to tell you Lucy features an interesting and complex plot, but it’s basically the standard Besson cliché of the main character being hunted and chased by drug dealers. Kang (the drug lord) kidnaps Lucy (Johansson) and three others and has a bag of drugs sown into the abdomen of each victim so that they can pass through airport customs safely. For reasons that don’t make any sense, Lucy is locked in some room and gets beaten up by one of her captors because she won’t let him rape her. The captor inadvertently ruptures the bag, the drugs are absorbed into Lucy’s body, and she becomes Spider-Man. Just kidding. She actually turns into the mom from Poltergeist for a minute, sliding up the wall and onto the ceiling while her body is being racked by seizures (I was simultaneously laughing and shaking my head during this ridiculous scene). Considering we’re told earlier in the film by Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman) that telekinesis doesn’t occur until at least 30% brain usage, this scene makes absolutely no sense other than to be an embarrassment for everyone involved. After Lucy recovers, the movie starts using her current brain usage (in convenient 10% intervals) as chapter transitions, and we see that Lucy is now at 20%. The rest of the film is nothing more than Lucy killing people and being chased by Kang and his men until the movie is over. I told you it was close to Limitless.

One of the most common things you hear about summer popcorn flicks is that they’re decent movies if you don’t think about them and that’s easy enough for the vast majority of moviegoers. I mean, how else do you explain the box office receipts for movies like Ironman 3 or Maleficent? My problem is that I do think about them because I actually give a damn about good storytelling. And, I’m not the only one. As my friend and I stood outside the theater after the film concluded giving our initial thoughts, another member of the audience walked up and asked what I thought of the film? After I responded with “It’s at least a decent action flick,” he said that he hated it and proceeded to tell me why. The best part about what he said – he sounded like I do after movies like this, but he got there a lot quicker.

The first thing he (I stupidly did not catch his name, so let’s just call him Bob) pointed out was the villain’s motivation was completely irrational. Lucy originally gets mixed up in the ordeal when her friend tricks her into delivering a case to Kang for him. Kang doesn’t know what’s in the case and, even after discovering what’s inside, doesn’t know what the drugs actually do. He just forces some junkie to snort one of the drug crystals, then shoots him in the head when the guy can’t stop laughing. Bob wanted to know why Kang was so adamant about chasing down Lucy, even though she spends most of the movie with a French cop; even though Kang knows what she’s capable of; even though Kang has no idea that the drugs are responsible for her condition. In fact, Bob correctly asserts that all of the characters in the movie, besides Lucy of course, are irrelevant, which leads us to Morgan Freeman.

Freeman’s Professor Norman’s entire purpose seems to be specifically to narrate. Seriously, that’s not a poke at Freeman – his entire job is to explain the theory of what a human is capable of if they can access more of their brain (during the first ten minutes of the film). The rest of the time, he just gawks at Lucy (and not just because she’s Scarlett Johansson) and makes surprised faces. Bob also hated that Freeman’s explanation was logical and thorough for the first 20% of brain usage, but turns to absurd fantasizing for the rest and a big “I don’t know” when asked about 100%. See what Besson did there? Clever, no? Yeah, you’re right – no.

Bob also noted that most of the action sequences were completely unnecessary. There’s a car chase scene in which Lucy is causing cars to flip and crash and explode in order to clear her path, even though she could easily have just pushed them aside and not injured or killed dozens of people. Then, in the climactic scene, she (feels? Echolocates? Professor X-es?) twenty-five men, including Kang, and tells the cop to hold them off because she has to concentrate. Okay – two questions: 1) concentrate for what and 2) why can’t she just take care of them first and then go concentrate? The answer to both questions is so that Besson can stage a pointless shootout between the cops and Kang’s men while Lucy turns into a mass of black tentacles in order to absorb all the technology in the lab and create the Construct from The Matrix (the place where Neo and Morpheus stand that is all white).

That all actually happens.

As Bob and I agreed on everything he and I were pointing out, we both realized that the real problem with the movie was the severe lack of development. Besson spent no time in developing Lucy, putting any thought into how she would react to the changes (in fact, he waives it all away by having her tell us that she’s lost all emotion), or the changes themselves. Of course, with a running time of 89 minutes, Besson sure as hell wasn’t going to cut the all-important car chase scene. Even the tension was artificial, as Lucy says she only has twenty-four hours to live and that the remaining bags of drugs are exactly the right amount she needs to get to 100% brain usage. To top it all off, the last line of the movie is probably one of the most confusing, nonsensical lines ever uttered in a film – “We were given life a billion years ago. Now you know what to do with it.” If by that, she means not wasting it watching movies like Lucy, then sure, we do know what to do with it.

After Bob left, my opinion of the film had been knocked down at least seven dollars. Bob helped to crystallize the feeling I had during the credits – that Besson might have actually been calling the entire audience stupid. The lack of development throughout the film and accelerated pace through Lucy’s evolution gave the impression that Besson was in on a secret, but didn’t want to share it with us. He even emphasizes that point via the closing line I just shared with you and with spliced-in nature scenes used as analogies, delivered with the subtlety of a stick of dynamite. At this point, the secret isn’t whether or not Besson is smarter than us; it’s if Besson is even using his full 10%.

Rating: Ask for all but a dollar back (or three back if you only care about action). Lucy’s as entertaining as 3 Days to Kill, but 90% disappointment.

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