Who could have guessed that two radically different Scarlett Johansson vehicles—released within months of each other—would both court comparisons to 2001: A Space Odyssey, and that one of them would be a brisk, ludicrous action fantasy directed by French wunderkind-turned-studio-puppetmaster Luc Besson?
Lucy stars Johansson as a hard-partying American expat who overdoses on a consciousness-expanding synthetic drug, which grants her complete control over her body and memory, and eventually over matter and time. It opens at the dawn of man and ends with its own version of 2001’s “Jupiter And Beyond The Infinite” sequence, with the title character seated in an all-white room, watching the birth of the universe whizz by in reverse. That’s a more straightforward homage than anything in Under The Skin; it’s also a bit of a lark, and a viewer gets the sense that, by continually invoking Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi touchstone, Besson is making fun of himself.
The first half of Lucy contains the most energetic and purely entertaining filmmaking Besson has produced since The Fifth Element, packed with pulpy action, pseudoscience, title cards, sped-up montages, and teasing associative cuts. (A turn in a conversation is interrupted by a close-up of a mousetrap, an explosion is replaced by a man exhaling cigarette smoke, and so on and so forth.)
The second half, though hardly humorless, overburdens itself with explaining its premise—which would be a serious buzzkill, if said premise weren’t completely and totally nuts. At about the two-thirds mark, the movie’s endearing daffiness gives way to outright psychedelia, with the superhuman Lucy growing extra digits, sprouting Akira-like tendrils to absorb computer servers whole, and using her time-warping abilities to meet dinosaurs and re-enact (or is that pre-enact?) Michelangelo’s The Creation Of Adam with one of her hirsute ancestors.
Lucy opens with its naïve heroine (Johansson seems to be channelling Shirley MacLaine, circa 1960) agreeing to deliver a briefcase for Richard (A Hijacking’s Pilou Asbæk), her skeevy, cowboy-hat-wearing boyfriend-of-the-week. The recipients turn out to be a Korean drug cartel, led by Jang (the great Choi Min-sik, best known as the lead in Oldboy), a pitch-black villain in the mold of The Fifth Element’s Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg. He’s introduced stepping over a dead body and then motioning for a valet to pour bottled water over his hands so he can wash the blood off.
Against her will, Lucy is forced to become a drug mule for Jang, whose underlings sew a packet of CPH4—an experimental pharmaceutical they want to market as a designer drug to European rich kids—into her abdomen. It doesn’t take long for that packet to burst, granting Lucy powers that are supposedly tied to the untapped potential of the brain (the opening stretch is intercut with a lecture delivered by world-renowned pseudoscientist Professor Norman, played by Morgan Freeman), but are really just an excuse for Besson to let his imagination run wild.
After her body absorbs its first near-lethal dose of CPH4, Lucy becomes effectively invulnerable, and the movie follows her as she barrels through Taipei and later Paris, trapping thugs in invisible boxes, disassembling guns with her mind, diagnosing kidney problems through touch, and shooting everyone left and right. Mishmashes of near-nihilistic violence and shamelessly sappy sentimentality are Besson’s stock-in-trade (see: La Femme Nikita, The Professional, or his script for Taken); here, the combination feels more palatable than usual, in part, because the violence always registers as unreal. It helps that the movie seems to take place in an alternate universe with its own biology. In one scene, Lucy’s cells decide it’s time to jump ship, and her face and fingertips begin to disappear into a sandstorm of flesh-colored matter.
Calling the whole thing dumb would be a disservice, but not because there’s anything especially smart going on under the movie’s surface. Rather, the sheer weirdness of Lucy’s imagery—a telekinesis-assisted car chase, a USB stick containing all the knowledge of the universe, people growing animal limbs—prevents it from registering as run-of-the-mill summertime “dumb fun.” It comes across, instead, as a directorial flight of fancy, an imaginatively goofy take on an already goofy idea, exaggerated by Besson’s blunt style and an uncommonly fast pace.