Saturday, July 26, 2014

Beyond Human Ken

Scarlett Johansson in Lucy (2014)

The truth of the matter is this: I didn't particularly want to go see Lucy (2014, directed by Luc Besson). I'm not fond of Luc Besson's films. He's not quite on my black list because his films usually strike me as stupid rather than malign, but his films can be so very, very profoundly stupid. More, he tends to fetishize his heroines in a way that makes me uncomfortable. But here's the train of thought that put my butt in a theater seat on the first day it was in theaters. I've been bitching about the sorry lot of superhero women for a while. It galls me that a talking raccoon with a machine gun is going to get a movie before Wonder Woman. It galls me that they fobbed off the Catwoman movie on "talent" that had nothing invested in the character nor any respect for it either. It galls me that mealy-mouthed movie executives bleat prejudice as truth when they say that women can't open a tentpole movie while counting all that money from The Hunger Games and Maleficent. It galls me that I don't have a Black Widow movie yet. I want my damned Black Widow movie. And so: Lucy is a superhero movie of sorts starring the Black Widow her ownself, Scarlett Johannson. I better put my money where my mouth is if I want my Black Widow movie. So I ponied up to see Lucy.

The plot: Lucy, the film's title character, is coerced into delivering a package to cabal of criminals. When the exchange doesn't go as planned, she's abducted and has a plastic bag full of some strange drug implanted into her abdomen. When she rebuffs the sexual advances of one of her captors, he kicks her in the stomach, rupturing the bag. The drug begins to seep into her system and suddenly, she has access to more and more of her brain's capacity. This gives her abilities and intelligence beyond human ken, but she has a problem. It's killing her, too. She needs the drug to keep from disintegrating. The drug has been sent by other drug mules throughout Europe. She contrives to use drug enforcement to do her work for her and capture the mules, while she herself contacts Professor Norman, who has wild theories about the brain's potential. Unfortunately for Lucy, the drug smugglers have followed her and aren't prepared to give up their product without a fight. Unfortunately for everyone, Lucy is prepared to give them that fight. Her other mission is to download everything she's learned so it can be passed on. To do all of this, she needs to force her brain to 100% of its capacity, at which point, she becomes something akin to a god...

My initial reservations about Lucy proved correct. It has a blockheaded premise built from gobbledigook. The whole 10% of the brain myth persists in the popular imagination in spite of the fact that it was formulated at a time when we didn't know most of what the brain does. We understand the brain better these days and, indeed, most of the functioning of the other 90%. Still, you need an origin story for a superhero and this is really no more ignorant than that whole radioactive spider business. Indeed, it's a much smarter premise than Prometheus's panspermia and its resulting plot and Lucy is a less bloated, less self-important film. It certainly has a much better grasp of how evolution actually works than Prometheus did. Lucy is a better and more ambitious film than the similarly-themed Limitless, too, in part because it views a post-human consciousness as more expansive than the world's best douchebag stock broker.  It should probably go without saying that it's better than Travolta's Phenomenon by the simple virtue of not proselytizing on the behalf Scientology. But this is all faint praise.

Scarlett Johansson in Lucy (2014)

This film is the most cinematically engaged film that Luc Besson has made in years. Decades, even.  His staging of action sequences remains clean, while his settings are sleek and attractive. This is all as expected from the director. The film's editing scheme and New Wave-style cutaways are unexpected, though. I mean, some of those cutaways are a bit on the nose. The scenes of predators and prey crosscut with the film's initial sequences are almost comical. But the film begins to fuse these things in its freakout finale. Structurally, Besson is taking his cues from Kubrick, beginning the film at the dawn of humanity and concluding with a variant of the stargate/starchild sequence from 2001. Indeed, the film begins with Lucy, the australopithecus, and comes back to her as Johansson's Lucy plays the role of the Monolith. The shot in which the two Lucys touch, taken from Michelangelo's The Creation of Adam, is also on the nose, but I'm down with it for the way it suggests humanity itself evolving to a godhead and in the way it puts the wind up anti-evolutionist ignoramuses. Mind you, it's a dumb idea, but the image is both hilarious and incendiary.

Choi Min-Sik in Lucy (2014)

Lucy turns out to be the idiot cousin to Her and Under the Skin, forming a loose "transhumanist" trilogy with those films.  Like Her, this is singularity sci fi, with Johansson's character once again evolving beyond human ken. This film even tethers her to mere humanity through the agency of love, though this film has less well-formed ideas on that count. Like Under the Skin, Johansson stalks through the film unconnected to humanity. The plot of this film runs in reverse: instead of discovering a spark of humanity, Lucy clings to it as it ebbs from her. Johansson's performance in Lucy seems to deliberately echo her performance in Under the Skin, though this film contrasts the alienness of her reserve to the more emotional pre-mind-expansion Lucy. I used to think that Scarlett Johansson couldn't act, but her recent career has proven me wrong. She's good in this film in a role that requires her to keep a straight face amid ridiculous plot turns and lines like, "I can remember the taste of your milk in my mouth." The film itself may not be able to sell that, but Johansson tries. As in Under the Skin, the movie tends to deglamourize Johansson with an awareness of her physicality. Certainly, the way it views her body as a vessel for the film's plot is something of a violation of her screen image.

Morgan Freeman in Lucy (2014)

For all its ambitions, though, Lucy is firmly grounded in the action genre. This is a violent film that's refreshingly unconstrained by the PG-13 rating most films of its type target (this film is mercifully rated R). Some of the action is ill-conceived. The car chase through Paris, for example, is both incoherent and marred by an over-reliance on CGI. The shootout at the end, though, is reminiscent of the golden days of the Hong Kong action film, and the presence of Korean superstar Choi Min-Sik as the bad guy unifies the film as a global production in a global idiom. Choi is the only actor in the film that upstages Johannson. He dominates her in their scenes together, though part of this is the power dynamic between them at that point of the plot. The man can certainly turn on the menace. I wonder if Morgan Freeman woke up last year and decided to make two singularity sci fi films in a row or if that was his agent's idea (the other was Transcendence, which I haven't seen at this writing). His Professor Norman gets his authority in the realm of the film's ideas from the gravitas of the actor.  If you want to sell silly ideas to a credulous audience, give it the voice of the Easy Reader.

Lucy's greatest virtue, though, is its running time. It runs just short of an hour and a half and it packs its ideas into that time with such economy that you don't have time to think too hard on their implications. It's a dense film and for all its myriad of faults, it's always fun to watch. It moves, which is more than I can say about many another film that shares the same DNA.

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