Sunday, February 8, 2015

Lucy (Universal, EuropaCorp, TF1, Canal+, Ciné+, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s “feature” was one of the best modern movies I’ve seen in quite some time: Lucy, a 2014 movie written and directed by Luc Besson (whose résumé includes credits like La Femme Nikita, The Fifth Element, Léon: The Professional — a movie Besson admitted strongly influenced this one — and the surprisingly good and undeservedly little-known Angel-A) and based on the largely discredited but once very au courant notion that human beings only use about 10 percent of their brain capacity and the other 90 percent represents terra incognita that could turn us all into super-people if we ever figured out a way to tap into it. As I recall, this “we only use 10 percent of our brain” business became really hip in the 1960’s when proponents of LSD and other psychedelic drugs were saying that those chemicals would help us tap into more of our potential brains than we’d been able to manage au naturel. So it’s not surprising that Besson’s script has the remaining 90 percent of his title character’s brain opened up by a drug — specifically CPH-4, a chemical supposedly released by mothers into the brains of their fetuses at six months in order to hasten the final stages of intellectual capacity they will need to cope with life outside the womb. A group of hellaciously unscrupulous Taiwanese mobsters headed by one Mr. Jang (Min-sik Choi) has figured out a way to isolate this stuff and make it synthetically, and have accumulated enough to collect four large plastic bags full of it and surgically implant each bag inside the intestine of a person they’ve kidnapped and impressed into service as their mules by researching their backgrounds, identifying all their loved ones and relatives, and threatening retaliation if the poor pigeons don’t go along.

Lucy Miller (Scarlett Johansson) is the slacker girlfriend of an even more obnoxious and useless slacker, Richard (Pilou Asbaek), who’s charged with taking a locked metal briefcase to Mr. Jang but wants to weasel out of it. So instead he gives Lucy the job, and when she begs off he handcuffs the briefcase to her, thereby forcing her to comply or else face the entire wrath of the Taiwanese Mafia on her head. She gets that anyway when they respond by taking her into custody — as an example of her disorientation, none of her captors speak English and to communicate with her they are relying on an interpreter who’s only a disembodied voice on the other end of a computer phone connection. Things get even worse for Lucy when Mr. Jang and his henchmen open the briefcase and we finally get to see what’s in it — the four packets of CPH-4 — and when Lucy undergoes the operation she’s put in a holding cell and chained to a wall, which gives the five male inmates in with her the idea that they can take advantage of her, sexually and otherwise, and she won’t be able to do anything about it. Only one of them kicks her in the stomach repeatedly when she resists, and the kicks break the plastic seal and release some of the CPH-4 into her system. Director Besson intercuts all of this with shots of wild animals interacting — sometimes having sex, but more often fighting (which made me wonder why he was harboring the ambition to be the modern-day Dwain Esper — Esper was a sub-“B” filmmaker of the 1930’s who made bizarre exploitation movies like The Seventh Commandment, Narcotic, Maniac and Marihuana: Weed with Roots in Hell, and one of his favorite directorial strategies was to fill his movies with stock shots of animals fighting, which was supposed to reflect symbolically the similarly “animalistic” drives of his human characters) — and indeed the opening scene of the movie shows an ape-man reaching out and pointing his finger at the sky, followed by a dissolve to a city scene in which the action is sped up so the cars pass back and forth at a blurry pace: I give him credit for having ripped off both 2001 and Koyannisqatsi before his movie is even a minute old! The other main plot line with which Lucy’s saga is intercut is that of Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman), playing the eminence noir as usual, explaining the theory that humans use only 10 percent of their brain capacity (he says that that’s the highest among land animals but dolphins use 20 percent) to a group of fellow researchers and honors students at a seminar in Paris.

Needless to say, all that CPH-4 in her system is going to turn Lucy (deliberately named after the nickname paleontologists gave to the oldest known human fossil — a shot of the famous statue of the prehistoric Lucy made to show their best guess as to what she looks like of course appears in this film!) into the perfect confirmation of Norman’s theories; she gains a bizarre assortment of superpowers, including ultra-fast movement, telekinesis, the ability to surround herself with a force field so bullets can’t harm her (an important ability since the Taiwanese gangsters are after her big-time and trace her to Paris) and sudden insights like the ability to drive a car and read Chinese. She commandeers a police car assigned to officer Pierre Del Rio (Amr Waked) and drives it at an ultra-fast pace, avoiding getting into any crashes herself but leaving a lot of wreckage and mayhem in her wake — indeed, one of the most fascinating Zeitgeist aspects of Lucy is the heedlessness of both the “good” and the “bad” guys to the collateral damage done by their actions. All that tiresome Superman and Spider-Man nonsense about with great power coming great responsibility is so 20th Century! A movie made in the 1960’s about this theme — the first human who unlocks more than 10 percent of their brain power — would probably have presented the person sympathetically and made the villains of the piece the people in the Establishment who didn’t want people unlocking more of their brains because that would jeopardize their ability to run things. The 2014 version presents Lucy as a rather shallow heroine whose only apparent drive is her own survival — until enough of that neural reprogramming kicks in that she realize her whole function is literally to kick-start human evolution, to send herself back in time so she can touch fingers with that ape-man we saw in the opening sequence (à la the famous Sistine Chapel image in which Michaelangelo dramatized the Creation by having God touch his finger to Adam to indicate He was giving him the spark of life, which is actually shown in the film just so we get the point) — and by the end of the film, which is periodically interrupted by titles showing us just how much of her brain Lucy is using now (20%, 30%, 50%, etc.) she turns herself into a set of black tendrils that plugs into the computers at the institute where Professor Norman is giving his lecture, and ultimately she downloads all the knowledge she’s acquired onto a flash drive and, when one of Norman’s colleagues asks where she is, sends a text message to his cell phone reading, “I AM EVERYWHERE.”

In a movie that has so reminiscences to other films — not only the ones mentioned above (including the three films, one of them his own, Besson copped to), but The Man Who Could Work Miracles (an H. G. Wells story in which a boring middle-aged Englishman gets the power to have anything he wishes for happen, and the irony is the contrast between the potential extent of his power and the stupid, banal things he does with it), Flowers for Algernon a.k.a. Charly (the Daniel Keyes story, filmed with Cliff Robertson, in which a retarded man undergoes an operation that turns him into a super-genius, only the effect is temporary and by the end of the story he’s reverted to his original intellectual level), David Brin’s 1991 novel Earth (in which a woman who’s done much of the research and work to build up the Internet ultimately dissolves her consciousness into the Internet and becomes the basis for the next generation of it), and even the old joke about the scientists who built the ultimate computer, fed into it every scrap of human knowledge, and decided to ask it all the questions humans had been debating over the millennia of their conscious existence, so the first thing they ask the computer is, “Is there a God?,” and the computer replies, “There is now” — Lucy works surprisingly well, managing the increasingly rare feat of being both an exciting shoot-’em-up action movie and a film of ideas. Its only recent competitor in that regard is The Hunger Games, and the films in that cycle (of which I’ve seen the first two, the ones that have made it to DVD so far) weren’t as effective at the balancing act as Suzanne Collins in the book. As silly as some of the opening scenes are, and as preposterous as the basic idea is (Universal put on a 10-minute bonus program attempting to establish a real-life scientific basis for the plot, but you can regard the entire premise of Lucy as unscientific hooey and still enjoy the hell out of it), Lucy is an excellent film that benefits from Besson’s decision to keep the running time down to a mere 89 minutes. Probably a lot of modern-day moviegoers, brainwashed by the hyperthyroid releases from most major studios to equate length with quality, were surprised and disappointed by this film’s brevity, especially since it’s carefully arranged not to invite the possibility of a sequel (another unusual play I give Besson major points for), whereas I loved its being so short and returning to the welcome brevity of movies from the 1930’s and 1940’s. About the only thing I could fault Lucy for is that, for all its intriguing engagements with issues of time, space, matter and energy, it’s still an action movie with a hot young woman protagonist — as if Besson were recycling the premise of one of his best-known previous films, La Femme Nikita, and giving Nikita super-powers!