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In the Outlandishly Entertaining Lucy, Scarlett Johansson Becomes One With the Action-Movie Universe

The new Luc Besson action picture Lucy is an outlandishly entertaining mixture of high silliness and high style. Working from the (disputed) premise that we humans have access to only 3 to 5 percent of our brains, Besson tells the story of a young American (Scarlett Johansson) in Taipei who’s accidentally dosed with a mind-expanding drug and, as hitherto unused gray cells are activated, becomes more and more omnipotent — super, super-duper, and then super-duper-puper-uper-uper. To help us keep track of how much of her own brain she’s “colonizing,” Besson puts the percentage in big, bold letters on the screen, and he regularly cuts to a speculative lecture by a neuroscientist (Morgan Freeman), from whom we learn that more cells don’t just mean deeper thoughts. With as little as 20 percent of your brain, he intones, you can control other things, other people, and, eventually, all matter. At 100 percent, the sky’s the limit. Like, literally.

How does Lucy become a brainiac? Not a long story — nothing takes too long in Lucy, which Besson brings in at a trim 88 minutes. A sleazy boyfriend gets her mixed up with Taipei gangsters who turn her into a drug mule, sewing a big bag of something purple called CPH4 into her stomach.* Its inevitable rupture triggers a lot of excellent inside-the-brain whooshy special-effects, but Besson’s focus is as much evolutionary as neurochemical. Lucy’s brain is, in some thrillingly dopey way, moving backwards in time: First, she’s accessing memories of her own childhood and birth (in explosive free-for-all montages); and then she’s going even further back, to the dawn of our species, the dawn of all species, the dawn of stuff, however you want to define stuff. 

Johansson plays Lucy as a mouthy hanger-on who’s transformed into a ninja Carrie White in The Matrix. Chinese assassins move fast, but she moves faster. She’s not, I should point out, a vigilante avenger. She’s beyond human emotion. It’s true that someone accessing, say, 50 percent of her brain probably has more cerebral things to do with her time. But in a way, this is cerebral. She throws one glance at the advancing hordes and it’s a bloody Busby Berkeley ballet of flying bodies.

Besson wouldn’t come up with an idea like this if he didn’t want to test himself — to leave the relatively realistic fisticuffs of Taken for the far-out reaches of The Fifth Element and beyond. There are so many more variables for a fight scene when your heroine is in tune with the vibrations of sound, the molecules in the air, and the very rotation of the Earth. When Lucy gets behind the wheel, the world eats her dust. Her skin turns different colors. She takes over TV and radio waves. Johansson, meanwhile, leaves behind Black Widow and Samantha the Her cybergoddess. She becomes one with the universe of action movies.

There aren’t really any characters per se in Lucy, but I was grooving on it until the final scene, when Freeman gets Johansson into his laboratory and things get a mite abstract. It’s hard to get too upset with Besson for not knowing how to end the movie, though. He’s a very smart man, but by the time Lucy hits the 90th brain percentile, she’s out of the realm of any human screenwriter. Terence Malick could conceivably have been drafted to take a whack at Lucy’s final minutes, which bear some resemblance to The Tree of Life as well as 2001. But perhaps it’s better open-ended. As our descendants evolve, colonize more of their own brains, and approach the man-machine singularity, filmmakers can continue to add onto Lucy, and then some critic can add on to the end of this review because we’ll never evolve beyond movie criticism.

*This post has corrected to show that the film takes place in Taipei, not Hong Kong.

Photo: Jessica Forde/Universal Pictures