There’s an episode of “Phineas and Ferb” where the gang is in Tokyo, and a J-pop music video breaks out. As they’re leaving (still dancing, of course), Candace looks at Isabella and says, “I have no idea what just happened.” The final third of Luc Besson’s “Lucy” prompted a similar reaction. It is just barely connected to the events that preceded it, morphing from a story loosely in the vein of Besson’s (great) 1994 film “The Professional” into something along the lines of this year’s (not great) “Transcendence.” If anything, Besson made an outstanding case against the notion that humans should try to maximize their brain power. Sure, we might become brilliant, but we’d also become crashing bores.
Lucy (Scarlett Johannson) is scraping by in Taipei, partying too much and studying too little. Her drinking buddy Richard (Pilou Asbaek) asks her to deliver a briefcase to businessman Mr. Jang (Choi Min-sik, who looks like a Korean Russell Crowe). When Lucy refuses, Richard forces her to do it by handcuffing the case to her wrist. She delivers the suitcase, only to discover that it contains a new, powerful synthetic drug, and she will be forced to smuggle one of the packages of the drug inside her body for distribution elsewhere. She is assaulted shortly after the package has been placed inside of her, and the package breaks. As the drug flows through her body, Lucy’s ability to tap into the farthest resources of her mind expands. The now-enlightened Lucy uses her newfound intelligence, as well as her ability to manipulate the space around her (levitation, force fields, etc.), to get even with Mr. Jang, while simultaneously contacting Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman) to show him that his theories on the subject of brain usage are dead on the money.
Every frame of this movie is directed within an inch of its life. Innocuous conversations come with symbolic equivalents from the animal kingdom (when Richard is baiting Lucy into delivering the briefcase, Besson actually shows a shot of a mouse sniffing around a mouse trap, ugh). There is a boatload of molecular mayhem footage (you know the kind). It makes sense in a way, since Besson’s story is about the mind suddenly being capable of processing an exponential amount of information, but since the viewer is still stuck using a measly 10% of his brain, the visual stimulation becomes noise after a while.
The larger issue, though, is that as Lucy evolves, she becomes not only less interesting but less sympathetic as well. Johannson does a great job of shutting down as it were, processing events more like an android than a human, but it also spoils the fun. She’s basically a Terminator with the powers of Magneto, which makes every battle a laughably one-sided affair.
And yet, despite the inconsistency of the story, the absurdity of Freeman’s character (he may as well be named Basil Exposition), and the over-the-top direction, “Lucy” is a pretty damned good time. Besson throws in a few neat tricks, like the moment where we watch the drug first course through Lucy’s body (rotating room!), and the moment where she first contacts Professor Norman by commandeering every piece of electronics in the room, while halfway around the world. Unfortunately, he put the cart before the horse; there are lots of interesting ideas and visually captivating moments, but the pieces don’t fit together. It’s good to see directors spread their wings and try new things, but Besson’s reach far exceeds his grasp here.
By the time “Lucy” wraps up that bad acid trip of an ending, it’s unclear what we’re supposed to take away from it. Johannson’s narration is designed to clear this up, with her last lines serving as a rallying cry of sorts, but the film undercuts Besson’s intended message at every opportunity. How ironic that in a movie about striving for greater intelligence, the takeaway turns out to be that ignorance truly is bliss.