Sure, Scarlett Johansson is a great actor. Alas, her lead role in Lucy does not do her justice.
The premise of the film—that we only use 10 percent of our brains—is a faulty one and caused quite an angry buzzing across the Internet (as here and here) even before the film’s official release. The direction this premise takes in the film is sadly uninspiring. Guess what we would do with 100 percent of our brains? Kill people who have done us wrong, time travel to get quick views of world history (replete with overly and inaccurately costumed Native Americans) and then morph into an Ursula-like oozing mass as we transform into a gooey super-computer. Hmmm, I would have picked creating world peace, ending poverty, eradicating rape and child marriage, undoing the lasting effects of colonialism and empire … But sure, I guess strapping on a pair of deathly high stilettos and killing a bunch of baddies might be someone’s choice. I cannot imagine who, though, and certainly not Johansson.
She is articulate in interviews and clearly chooses her roles carefully (as here), noting she never pictured herself doing “a lot of hand-to-hand combat” for roles. Surely this is partly due to the fact that reporters and critics, like the one linked above, use phrases such as “her unlikely action hero status.” Woman as hero is still an exception rather than a rule, and often one that is derided as impossible. This is why I was hoping Lucy would be a film to root for, because great films with complex female heroes don’t come around nearly often enough, and every silver screen fail is another win for the “women can’t be heroes” camp.
This argument aside, Johansson is good in the action role she is given, believably capturing the transformation from regular young woman into super-charged brain creature. Betrayed by her man, who cuffs her to a suitcase to be delivered to key villain Mr. Jang, early scenes of her terror are convincing and palpable. That’s thanks mainly to her acting prowess, not the film’s many stony-faced villains (who are all, by the way, Asian, except for the white man who betrayed her in the first place, but race is a topic for another review.)
Later in the film, as the synthetic drug pack that was sewn into Lucy’s stomach breaks and seeps into her system, Johansson conveys the electrifying jolts so adeptly that I was twitching in my seat. She also captures the beyond-humanness of her character excellently—so well, in fact, that it becomes hard to identify or sympathize with Lucy. She becomes, as IMDB describes it, “a merciless warrior evolved beyond human logic.” This is one area where the film falters. And we have seen this story before. Sure, this time it is a woman getting revenge against a group of male bad guys, but this alone does not a great female-driven action movie make. Ultimately the narrative and the script are lacking—and Johansson’s talent cannot make up for that.
As for the rest of the film, there are lots of stunning visuals, oodles of action-packed scenes and many compelling juxtapositions of humans and jungle animals. Stunning visuals do not make up for a thin, improbable story based on false claims about brain use, though. The high-death-count action scenes dripping with gratuitous violence quickly become tiresome (and preposterous) in a film that is claiming to be about putting one’s brain to better use. And if you want human-animal juxtapositions, I recommend seeing Dawn of the Planet of the Apes over Lucy. True, Dawn is appalling in its lack of female characters, but Lucy doesn’t do much better. Yes, Johansson is the lead, but there are no other female characters of note, nor even one female baddie, cop, scientist, etc.
True, seeing Lucy wield her powers, both with weapons and without, has its pleasures in a film world where males are far too often still the action leads, but to have another female-led action movie be only so-so is very disappointing. Perhaps having Lucy in theaters is better than having no female-led action-hero movies at all (as will continue if Marvel has its way). And, hey, at least her power is her brain. Sadly though, one of the main things she does with that brain power is kill. Hardly something to cheer about.
If you want to watch a movie where females wield guns to a much better effect, go back to Thelma and Louise. Or if you have a hankering for a female superhero, Johansson as Black Widow is far more intriguing than her as Lucy. Or perhaps you are a fan of Lucy creator Luc Besson, who has, after all, written/directed many films with complex and compelling characters. Save yourself some money and rent The Fifth Element instead.
Morgan Freeman is passable in Lucy as philosopher/scientist Professor Norman, who waxes poetic about “cerebral capacity,” but his most interesting claim—that humans are more concerned with having rather than being—is never explored in the narrative. Instead, in the final scenes, as Lucy gets close to 100 percent brain capacity, the film truly jumps the shark. Stock-still in a chair in a tight black dress and massively high black stilettos, Lucy hopes to download all her knowledge into a computer so that, before she ceases to exist, she can share this knowledge with Dr. Norman. As she attempts to do so, she begins to sprout vine-like roots from her body, the color of dark blood, that ooze and spread throughout the lab in tentacle-like masses as a gaggle of male scientists and her lone protector cop watch in stunned amazement (in one shot from above, she sits in the middle of several of these growing ‘arms,’ looking much like a sci-fi take on Ursula).
Once she makes it to 100 percent brain capacity, her body (and all of its tentacle masses) dissolves, leading to the question “where is she?” From the beyond, she answers, “I am everywhere” in a text message to the cop’s phone. There we have it, folks, the age-old destructive, elusive female monster who spreads into a primordial mass and threatens to undo the ordered world of science, medicine and the law. Thank goodness this monster (she is earlier called a witch) gives over the knowledge to good old Dr. Norman in the form of a handy USB drive.
Hopefully somewhere on that USB stick there’s a document containing the following directives:
1) Don’t go about gratuitously killing people just for the sake of it.
2) Do not wear shoes so cripplingly high that you are unable to navigate your way safely through the world.
3) If given the chance to watch Lucy, pick Thelma and Louise instead.
As for you human brain-users out there, why not put that noggin to use solving the following question: How much cerebral capacity will it take to finally get a Wonder Woman film off the ground? Now there is a brainy woman I am ready to see.
Natalie Wilson teaches women’s studies and literature at California State University, San Marcos. She is the author of Seduced by Twilight and blogs for Ms., Girl with Pen and Bitch Flicks.