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Luc Besson’s Lucy is a flashy and fun summer romp that will leave viewers dazzled by its hallucinatory spectacle, scratching their heads with its nonsensical pseudo-scientific premise, and perhaps a little confused about what in the hell happens to the title character played by Scarlett Johansson. The film opens with a super-saturated sequence of Earth As It Once Was. It begins with a single isolated primitive human – Lucy, the first woman whose remains were discovered in 1974 and was estimated to have occupied the planet over 3 million years ago. Trying to put a simple plot to this film would be an exercise in futility. Part of the movie’s point is that people are so under-evolved that the only way they can measure value in their lives is to set-up meaningless systems and obstacles to weigh themselves against, for example movie plots. But at a bare bones level, Lucy is the story of a dumb blonde who evolves into a super hero and then pure intelligence as a result a shitload of blue crystal brain empowering drugs.
Lucy is kidnapped by a group of Taiwanese Drug Thugs in Taipei who are using her as a drug mule to deliver the drug CPH4 to various international cities (Rome, Berlin and Paris) to sell to the kids who are going to love the shit. The gang literally inserts the bag of drugs into Lucy’s abdomen. When one of the thugs attempts to rape Lucy and she fights off his advances, he kicks her in the stomach, rupturing the bag of drugs which seep into Lucy’s body and rapidly increase her brain power. The movie is based on the false premise that humans only use 10% of their brain and speculates what will happen if someone uses 100% of their brain. But this isn’t just any person, it is a woman and that is central to the film. This is a genre mash-up where a white American woman is placed in the middle of a male-dominated Chinese action movie fashioned after the super-stylized films of John Woo. It is also a super hero tale, a rape-revenge narrative (the drugs inserted in her body are like a kind of rape), and a science fiction of the present story.
When Lucy’s brain’s functional capacity starts growing from 10% towards 100%, a lot of cool and weird shit happens. Everything looks, feels and sounds different. She can feel her bones, her brain, her heart. She can change matter, infiltrate electronics (phones, TVs, computers), and make people do things they don’t want to do. The benevolent Morgan Freeman plays an old tiresome brain scientist who gives us very dry explanations of what is happening to Lucy. (She’s becoming a dolphin!) But Freeman is just a filter. He attempts to provide logic in a world which, if you go by his theories and Lucy’s actions, ultimately defies logic or is logic so pure that it is illogical.
As Lucy’s brain expands its power, the Taiwanese gang is on her ass trying to get their bag of blue drugs, but she is out to discover the truth and to pass on the information she is learning the benevolent Morgan Freeman. We don’t know why, but we have to guess that maybe Lucy wants to make the world a better place . . . . as if. Along the way we go through a hallucinatory and action packed cinematic ride. There are trippy sequences of animals hunting and fucking. Lots of FX depicting the interior of the human mind and body as well as the world at its origins (the Big Bang). There are eye popping car chases, slick night shots of Taipei and other urban cities, a hell of a lot of blood, insanely chaotic shootouts, and a relatively high body count.
In the middle of it all, Lucy’s body moves forward as she reads the data of the world and sees the very energy that makes the world pulse. She sees the veins of trees as they absorb oxygen in a myriad of color, the electronic grid of communications which she can spread with her fingers to read data and locate people. She can read the inside of people’s brains!
Major critics accuse this film of two faults – 1) being unbelievable; 2) being racist because Lucy only kills Asians. First of all, the movie is a MOVIE. Movies require suspension of disbelief. They are not meant to be real or believable. Criticizing the movies because “Windows 8 won’t really do that” (to quote one reviewer) is ludicrous. The entire premise of this film is unbelievable, and sometimes we go to the movies to watch the unbelievable because the believable is either too boring or too horrific.
Regarding the racist accusations, I have not read one review that mentions that Lucy places a white American female in the middle of a traditional Asian action movie (following John Woo’s model) which are male-centered critiques of patriarchal systems. Women are window dressing in traditional Chinese action movies, so putting Lucy in the middle of this narrative ruptures the genre on many levels. For the record, Lucy does not kill that many people but rather stops them from killing her by disarming them. She kills one guy who is going to die anyway, and she kills the men who brutalize her and attempt to rape her (a rape-revenge sequence in a genre mash-up film). For the most part, she shoots men in the legs to stop them in their tracks, or she uses her super powers to take their guns and dump their bullets. The shootout scenes occur between men in suits and cinematographically mirror the same action sequences we see in Woo’s films. To quote Drew Hunt in the Chicago Reader:
Woo’s films are characterized by bullets flying in slow motion, kinetically charged fight scenes, and blatant displays of masculinity. Ultimately, however, these elements prove to be stylistic surface pleasures that sensationalize Woo’s primary concerns: the moral and social complexities of patriarchal gangster milieus. His films, entertaining as all hell, get to the root causes of violence even as they revel in the garish pleasures of violence in movies.
There are plenty of slow motion bullets in Lucy, and Lucy has plenty of spicy-handed moments that pay tribute to John Woo; however, it is the men who are doing the killing. In their tidy black suits and their arsenal of automatic weapons, they shoot at each other and aim their guns at Lucy who sends the men floating to the ceiling or unloading their bullets in a metaphoric act of castration. This is about a woman in a man’s world, and it uses the Hong Kong action genre to exploit its themes in unusual ways that break the Hollywood mold. And it is fun.
The movie is all about breaking molds. Sure, Lucy’s brain progresses in a linear trajectory from 10% to 100%, but the experience of this progression is largely a nonsensical hallucination. Part of the point of the film is that people are more comfortable when they put everything in boxes even though they ultimately are uncomfortable with the female “box” –the maternal, the vagina, the woman (a.k.a. Lucy). Lucy is a “box” (a female), but she also opens Pandora’s box as her brain expands. Ultimately she undoes not only her own body (becoming pure intelligence), but she also dismantles the concept of the one human measure that is a constant – time. She fucks everything up, and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Those men shouldn’t have been fucking with CPH4 in the first place if they didn’t want to unleash all the Girl Brain Power on the world!
As Lucy becomes more evolved, she understands that emotions are measured against other humans, and she fears she is losing her emotional capacity, so she calls her mom to impart her feelings and tell her mom she loves her. During the call, Lucy says she remembers everything from the cat she had when she was one year old to the taste of her mother’s milk in her mouth. This scene is important because 1) it is a rare moment of pure human emotion that ruptures the frenetic hallucinatory violent trip that Lucy is on, and 2) it is a return to the maternal. When I saw the film, the audience literally gasped in disgust at the mention of the taste of mother’s milk. Certainly, Besson was intentionally provoking this response. It is no coincidence that Lucy is named after the “first woman” and that the Smart Drug that is so highly desired and creates such phenomenal brain evolution comes from pregnant women. People desire what they fear, and according to Pop Feminism, there is nothing men fear more than women and “the mother”. At the core of this movie, Besson is playing with feminist film traditions and is on Lucy’s side. He is offering his own critique of patriarchy using the tools that John Woo gave him but then inserting a female character and a lot of hallucinatory sci-fi FX into the mix.
I always like to quote Shelia Valentine’s Norma Jean the Termite Queen in relation to films or books that depict women as both something to awe and something to fear. In Valentine’s book, an early caveman describes his fear of women as: “They bleed all the time and never die.” Certainly this is the case for Lucy. She spends a lot of time bleeding and never dies. She has a bag of drugs shoved in her abdomen and then pulled out without anesthesia. She is impervious to bullets and rips them right out of her body with her own bare hands. She deflects armies of men and the guns they aim at her. She moves through the film in a state of ever-increasing hyper-intelligence playing men like pieces on a chessboard, and, yes, she never dies. Instead, she becomes everything and everywhere. She loses her body (therefore shedding her blood), and becomes both the origin and the end of things, simultaneously collapsing and exploding that constant human measure – time. Certainly this sounds pretentious and preposterous, but because Lucy is an action movie. It is still fun even if it is ludicrously absurd.
Still, while the movie is fun on the outside, on the inside it is bleak and depressing. Basically it says that the limits of the human brain have caused us to set up stupid systems of measures and obstacles to quantify our existence. According to Dr. God Morgan Freeman, these systems basically pit human against human as a measure of value. This is why humans are constantly battling each other in futile attempts to measure their value through power and acquisition. If we are not battling each other in war, we are battling each other for money. In fact, according to the doctrine of this film, we are a species that “cares more about things than feelings.”
Interestingly, however, the more evolved Lucy becomes, the more her feelings take a backseat to pure intelligence and the more she doesn’t need things or obstacles of measure. As I mentioned, the drug CPH4 is derived from maternal chemistry. The chemical is produced in very limited doses in mothers. So perhaps this film is saying that when Maternal Chemistry runs amok, you end up with a highly intellectually evolved species, so evolved, in fact, that you no longer need a body. Or in metaphoric terms, the female body no longer becomes necessary. This can be read as both revolutionary and reactionary. Getting rid of the female body can be a good or bad thing. This concept reflects Johannson’s two previous films Her and Under The Skin where she is a woman who ends up without a body and exists as a form of ephemeral pure intelligence. That’s all fine when she returns to a super advanced primordial yet evolved state, but the men with the guns are still down here on planet earth creating war and havoc.
There is a lot of pop psychology and theory crammed into this movie, from Existentialism to Marxism to feminism and a shitload of brain theories. But Besson is French, and the French like to ponder the meaningful meaninglessness of existence. This film does that while also delivering a lot of high-power FX, automatic weapons, animals humping, hallucinatory visuals, and one hot unstoppable superhero babe who bleeds all the time and never dies.
Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently published her first book, Mapping the Inside Out, in conjunction with a solo gallery show by the same name. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.