Set five minutes into the future, Lucy is about the birth of a new kind of superhero. With Scarlett Johansson playing our eponymous ninja with mental superpowers, there's a lot of fantastic action here. But sadly, the movie makes some major mistakes, too.
Let's start with the good stuff. Director Luc Besson is a genius when it comes to visual flair and action, so the action scenes (when we get them) are great. And the first act of the film is possibly one of my favorite superhero origin stories ever. Lucy is a college student in Taipei whose loser boyfriend tricks her into delivering a mysterious suitcase to an even more mysterious group of Taiwan mafia guys. Of course, they immediately kill her boyfriend and then drag her to a hotel room full of other dead people. This whole sequence is fantastic, with Lucy totally out of her depth and Besson interspersing the action with weird nature footage of animals eating each other. The tone is frenetic, ironic, and ultra-comic booky.
Turns out that the mafia guys want to use Lucy as a drug mule. They cut her open, stick an alarmingly giant bag of blue crystals into her gut, sew her up, and give her a plane ticket to Europe. But along the way she gets beaten up by some would-be rapists, bursting the bag inside her — and giving her the old Hulk-style injection of super stuff. Again, this is enormous fun to watch. Lucy gets a power-up to her brain, which leads to a power-up in her muscle and body control, which leads to Johansson shooting the shit out of everybody like a total badass.
Unfortunately that's also where the movie's problems start. In between the mental power ninja pyrotechnics, we have to hear the movie's scientific explanation for what's actually happening to Lucy. We do hear it from the always classy Morgan Freeman, so obviously things could be worse. He's a neuroscience something or other, who helpfully intones that humans only use 10 percent of their brains (scientifically, this is complete nonsense) and if we were to use more we'd be ultra-athletes who could control other people's minds, manipulate electro-magnetic waves, implant all knowledge of space and time into a psychic USB drive, and some other crap.
Look, when a movie has this much beautiful action, I will grant you that one silly science scene is absolutely fine. It's practically necessary to the genre. What would Hulk be without the fake science explanations about his gamma ray accident? The problem is that this movie just won't let it go. Instead of zipping past the handwavery, it becomes the centerpiece of the movie, eventually drowning out everything else. We keep hearing more and more about Lucy's amazing brain, quantum this and that, meaning of life, what is our purpose, and cellular something or other. First this is embarrassingly dumb, and then it just gets boring.
When you've got a badass superhero with evil futuristic drug lord enemies, you'd better have a damn good theory about the meaning of existence if we're going to take lots of time out to talk about it. And Lucy doesn't. It's like Besson read about the superintelligence explosion and the singularity, then decided to slather some soundbytes from What the Bleep Do We Know?! on top of what would otherwise have been a really compelling superhero story.
I don't have a problem with philosophical superhero stories — I am a huge fan of The Watchmen comic, like any sane person. The problem is that the philosophy and science in Lucy are complete crap, and they don't lead us anywhere. At least in The Matrix Reloaded, the philosophy was based on actual philosophy (and even then, nobody was crazy about it). Here it's just a hodgepodge of pseudoscience and platitudes that get repeated endlessly.
For anyone who listened to Johansson's sultry AI voice in Her, the role she plays in Lucy will feel like a reprise — except instead of being a machine who convinces us that she's human, here she's a human who is slowly becoming a machine. The more of her brain she uses, the more she needs to merge with a computer. Eventually, we learn that her destiny is to become an AI of sorts. Which means that she's one of those superheroes with an expiration date, able to kick ass for only a short time before evolving into something incomprehensible and irritatingly mystical.
It's this plot point that drives the movie, flailingly, toward an attempt at having a grander message than "kick ass, warp reality, and look damn good." Because the movie and its superhero started out with so much promise, it's a letdown to watch the whole thing spiral down into pseudo-intellectual nonsense.