Thursday, September 11, 2014

Lucy, review: 'everything Scarlett Johansson does is worth watching'

Towards the sticky end of a summer of films based on toys, comic-books and other films, here, at last, is a film based on the Kantian model of transcendental idealism. 

In his 1781 page-turner, the Critique of Pure Reason, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant warned that the human brain, in its pinky-grey feebleness, has to rattle the world into an order it doesn’t possess purely to make sense of it. Otherwise, as Kant snappily puts it, “all constitution, all relations of objects in space and time, indeed space and time themselves, would disappear.”
Lucy, the new film from Luc Besson, is about a young woman whose brain becomes powerful enough to see the world as it really is – which, as it turns out, is exactly like a Luc Besson film. The plot has been inspired by the old myth that human beings use only 10 per cent of their potential brainpower – which, like all myths, speaks to deeper fears about the universe and our dispensable role within it.
The title character, played by Scarlett Johansson, is a student in Taipei, and when we meet her, lingering on the steps of a hotel with a dope in a cowboy hat, her smeared make-up and leopard-print jacket tells us she’s a habitual maker of bad decisions. Sure enough, she’s soon shanghaied into a narcotics-smuggling operation, and a pouch of blue crystals – “something the kids in Europe are going to go crazy for,” the gang’s boar-like kingpin, played by the Oldboy star Choi Min-sik, explains – is stitched, kangaroo-like, into her belly.

But the bag bursts, an enormous dose of the experimental drug is absorbed into her bloodstream, and her brain goes into overdrive. Side-effects include: mind-reading, the ability to manipulate matter at a distance, and the tendency to fizz like a human Alka-Seltzer.

Handily, while Lucy’s latent powers begin to manifest, an eminent neuroscientist, played by Morgan Freeman, is simultaneously delivering a lecture on the mind’s most far-flung abilities in a Paris LycĂ©e. This stuff, he says, is what happens when the brain reaches 20 or 30 per cent of its operational capacity. “What happens at a 100 per cent?” a student asks. “Well, we’re reaching into the realms of science-fiction,” hums the professor. “But we just don’t know.”

Besson, however, has a few ideas, and the film goes hurtling off, with an exhilarated loopiness that clashes joyfully with Johansson’s deadpan poise, towards this neurological event horizon. As Lucy becomes ever more sharply aware of the world around her, Johansson’s eyes scan the faces of the people around her, if her pupils are mouse-pointers searching for hotspots to click on. You can hardly wait for her to climb behind the steering wheel of a car: when she finally does, it’s in Paris in the middle of rush-hour, and she weaves between the oncoming traffic like a sheep dog through a slalom.

In a memo attached to the shooting script, Besson described Lucy as a film in three acts: “The beginning is Leon The Professional, the middle is Inception, the end is 2001: A Space Odyssey.” That’s an honest admission of the familiarity of the film’s ideas, but also a boast about how high it’s stretched in order to pinch them: Besson could just as easily have cited Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life or the Wachowskis’ original Matrix film as Lucy’s legitimate forerunners. (It also bears a resemblance to the 2011 Bradley Cooper vehicle Limitless, in which a drug is also used to breach the mythical 10 per cent brain barrier, although Besson has said in interviews that his script predates the Cooper film.)

It’s also, happily, part of an impromptu Vedic cycle of contemporary science-fiction films starring Scarlett Johansson. Having transcended human life in Besson’s film, the actress returns to Earth as a benign digital spirit in Spike Jonze’s Her, and then again as a heavenly destroyer in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin. That reminds us she’s the actress making the most consistently fascinating choices in Hollywood right now, and also that everything she does is, at the very least, worth watching. Lucy is more than that. It’s the blockbuster of the summer.

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