Friday, August 1, 2014

Lucy (2014) - or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Brain

Luc Besson's superhero action-comedy Lucy is not, in fact, a scientific documentary about the brain. While many critical reviews of the trailer and poster would suggest otherwise, it's actually an absurd dark comedy about motherhood and the subversion of expectations told via a mashed up superhero pulp. It's also extremely well paced, finishing up in under an hour and a half without any wasted time.

As a warning, this review contains a great many spoilers, big and small. Read at your own risk.

Lucy Begins

The film centers around the titular Lucy (Scarlett Johansson), an American living in Taiwan who is forced into becoming a drug mule for a day by her new boyfriend, a man who thinks the right way to go undercover in the city of Taipei is to be a big white guy wearing a huge cowboy hat, slinking outside of the drop-off point giving his partner a big thumbs up while she conducts the trade.

To the surprise of no one, the trade goes south and Lucy is accosted by Korean mob boss Mr. Jang (Choi Min-sik) and his crew of cartoon tough guys. Things go from bad to worse and Lucy is eventually forced to smuggle a supply of a new experimental drug out of the country, along with three other unfortunate souls. The method for transporting the drug is, of course, cutting open the person transporting it, stuffing a bag into their bellies, and hoping for the best. Lucy's bag leaks after an attack, the drug enters her cells in massive quantities, and she starts down the path to becoming as many superheroes as possible in the 24 hours she has to live. Calling her a "hero" is misleading, but it fits the conventions of the genre.

A time-lapsed Taipei glows neon
Once Lucy gets infected by the bright blue Supermanium drug, the audience meets Professor Samuel Norman (Morgan Freeman) and is offered the supposition that if we could use more of our brains, perhaps we could control the way our bodies function, and then control others and then control all matter. After all, dolphins invented sonar when they hit 20%, imagine what we could do?

Lucy agrees with the professor's conclusion that this is what's happening to her. The drug has begun increasing her brain's Power Level and the next logical step is to eat all the rest of the drug (still stuffed in the guts of three other drug mules) and see what happens next.

Superman: Now in gel form
A True Story about Brains - Everything I Need to Know I Learned from Morgan Freeman

If this sounds ridiculous and dumb, it's because it is. Besson's film is aware of the absurdity on display and has an obvious sense of humor about the whole thing. The trailers set up the film's big joke: Lucy's advertising focuses on Morgan Freeman's role as a man who, with the Voice of God, stands before his students and declares that humans use only 10% of their brain, and if we could unlock the rest, the possibilities are endless. The punchline is a student raising his hand and asking, after a long, elaborate lecture, "is there any scientific basis for this?" Professor Norman sheepishly responds, "not really." Once Lucy goes full-on superhero, the best thing he can do is sit her in a chair and point a video camera at her.

The casting of the lead actors is important. Whether he's actually playing God or narrating nature documentaries or explaining the fate of humanity or doling out prison wisdom, audiences are conditioned to accept Morgan Freeman as a voice of authority, a man who calmly and patiently, with an incredible tone, tells us what's up with the world, whether real or fictional. Taking someone known for wise speeches, putting him on a pedestal, and having him say completely provably wrong nonsense while keeping a completely straight face is funny! As a funny coincidence, The Lego Movie makes the same joke, casting Freeman as the maybe wise, maybe not wizard Vitruvius.

God to God contact

Avenging Black Widow

Casting Scarlett Johansson as the lead here is important too. In Marvel's Iron Man 2, Johansson plays Black Widow, a sexy spy inserted into the film to serve as an advertisement for The Avengers. When Avengers was released in 2012, there was an opportunity to make more out of the Black Widow character and actually put a compelling female hero on screen. Instead, we got a scene of her tied to a chair in a cute dress while she kicked nameless henchmen, a scene where she runs away and hides from a raging Hulk while the boy heroes fight it out with bad guys, and a scene where the evil Loki calls her a rude word while she pretends to cry. Black Widow's not an interesting character in Avengers and is used poorly. Then again, this is true of everyone in the movie who isn't Iron Man or Loki. Casting the same actress to play a much better superhero in Lucy feels like Besson looking at Avengers and saying, "Really? I can do better than this."

Feeling the cosmos
We're at a point in film history where there's an astounding flood of superhero movies released yearly, yet we still aren't seeing Marvel or DC pushing a female hero on film as anything more than a supporting role, like Widow, or a cameo, as in the upcoming use of Wonder Woman in Batman v Superman: All Monsters Attack. In that way, Lucy is refreshing. She's a mentally strong character who has no sexy gymnastics scenes, she completely outperforms every male character in the film, and her ascension into godhood is intrinsically tied to her being a woman. It's also really refreshing to see a superhero film based on an original concept (even one that borrows from a great many sources) and isn't a bloated, two and a half hour advertisement for the next film in the series.

Moms and Gods

The science of Lucy is goofy and irrelevant and far more important are its subtextual elements. Everything about Lucy's developing powers is tied into her womanhood. The drug that causes her awakening is made of artificial pregnancy hormones and Lucy is the only woman to consume it. The three other drug mules and the goblin the mafia uses to test the drug are all men, and all end up useless and dead because of the drug, for one reason or another. It's inserted into her body right where a woman would have a c-section performed. While a great many superhero films focus on puberty as a metaphor for blossoming abilities as the body transforms, Lucy focuses on pregnancy.

Before really understanding what's going on, Lucy attempts to have the drugs removed from her body at a nearby hospital. While in surgery (she refuses any form of anesthesia), she calls her mother and tearfully tells her about how big and cool the universe is, and how she finally can see everything. She reminisces about tasting her mother's milk. Her mother never stops to ask if she's on drugs.

Lucy takes on her multi-armed form

A theme of reproduction runs throughout the movie, bluntly shoved in the audience's face by shots of animals mating early on, and continuing when Lucy decides that the only way to survive this whole ordeal is to reproduce. She chooses not a sexual reproduction, but reproduction through a massive, surreal spiritual division as she dumps her knowledge and experience into a new form of computer she builds, while simultaneously leaving human form and becoming a ghost in the machine. It's both a metamorphosis into a new form of life and a budding of her brain into billions of pieces of offspring data.

There are a lot of angles to what happens to Lucy's body when she first makes contact with the drug, many uncomfortable. She becomes, essentially, pregnant with superpowers, before finally, as the film ends, birthing a new form of consciousness. This is both a virgin birth and a rape. She is artificially implanted with the drug, and it leaks into her body after she is brutally kicked around for turning down the advances of one of the mafia thugs. All of this adds a grotesque layer of subtext to her development that may make some uncomfortable.

Aside from just the virgin birth, the Christological subtext runs throughout the film. The drug essentially serves as the Blood of Christ, saving Lucy from death and setting her on the path to enlightenment and salvation. Rather than serving as a vessel to birth a Christ figure, Lucy chooses to walk that path herself, compiling a database to lead humanity into a better future and save them. She chooses to be both Jesus and Mary, and in the end, leaves her disembodied Holy Spirit in the world's technology, inhabiting its phones and computers, while her original consciousness leaves time and space and witnesses the birth of the universe. The film gets very trippy in a way that the "brains don't work that way" shouts don't credit, and ends as a bizarre marriage of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey and Spike Jonze's Her. She becomes the Mother of Knowledge and may or may not have kickstarted the human race via non-linear time, as seen in a shot that mirrors Michelangelo's Creation of Adam (the painting itself is seen briefly earlier in the film.) In one of the funnier moments in the film, she takes on godhood and gives us a new Tree of Knowledge in the form of a gaudy USB thumb-drive. She also becomes a superhuman voice inside of a phone.

Another subversion of superhero films is the way in which Lucy completely emasculates the film's male leads. There are three men important to the plot: Morgan Freeman as Professor Norman,  Choi Min-sik's as Mr. Jiang, and Amr Waked as Officer del Rio, an effective but completely out of his element police officer that Lucy drags along on her quest to remind herself that she's still human. By the end of the film, Lucy is far more intelligent than the Professor, far more efficient with violence than the Mafia Killer, and a far better detective than the Cop. All three men are left shrunken and dazed as she rampages through the world toward her ultimate goal.

A suave army wanders out of a Korean gangster film

Queen of the Monsters

When it comes to her powers, Lucy serves as a Greatest Hits of sci-fi and super hero films. The first powers that develop are incredible reflexes and fast healing abilities, calling to mind the two films that kicked off the modern superhero deluge, 2002's Spider-Man and 2000's X-Men. She doesn't get to shoot webs, but she does fight her first battle using a chain and a belt to effectively serve the same purpose as Spider-Man's weaponry.

Amateur Spider-Man practice
Later, Lucy develops Professor Xavier's ability to get inside people's heads and put people to sleep. She fights using telekinesis that's visually similar to Magneto's magnetism. She shifts her physical appearance at will ala Mystique. She drives a car like Vin Diesel in The Fast and the Furious, and given how nuts the latest films in that franchise get, I'm counting him as a superhero. She builds a giant, abstract machine akin to the clock constructed by Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen. She eventually begins to physically grow, transform and absorb matter, as a sort of benevolent version of Akira's Tetsuo. She deposits her knowledge into a tiny, handheld version of 2001: A Space Odyssey's monolith.

With such a hilariously overpowered ability set, action scenes play out as they should: Once she awakens, Lucy is invincible and can dispose of deadly gangsters effortlessly. She doesn't bother wasting a second on theatrics; no fancy martial arts after her first fight, no sassy posing, no running from enemies. She just flicks her wrist and drops them while they fly away bewildered.

Early on, when Lucy is captured and brought into the mafia lair in tears, the film is interspersed with shots of a a leopard hunting and killing a gazelle. The obvious connection is that this footage is analogous to the helpless Lucy being hounded by the mobsters, but her costuming in this scene tells the truth; she's wearing a leopard print jacket. She might be the one panicked at that moment, but from then on, she is 100% the predator. In a way, this makes her feel a bit like a monster in a kaiju film, a force of nature that man falls before helplessly as he ponders the scientific ramifications.

All she needs

I found it interesting that this was absolutely not a revenge story. Lucy's abused and wronged by Jang and his thugs, but she doesn't stalk and kill them afterwards. Once she's in control of her powers, Lucy tends to go out of her way to immobilize her enemies non-lethally. The only time she's really reckless about human life post-powers is when she's leading a high-speed car chase, since even though no one's shown dying, it's ridiculous to imagine no one died during it. Prior to understanding what's going on, she dryly executes a few mobsters and a dying hospital patient.

When Lucy confronts Jang one on one, she injures him and mind-melds with him to get information about where the rest of the drugs went, showing us her true objective. She's not interested in human pettiness like revenge (a concept that ultimately destroys Jang) but instead just wants to continue to consume and grow. She's become the smartest person on Earth, but she acts more and more alien as the film goes on, absorbing information and matter and losing her emotional connection to humanity. Lucy isn't uncaring, but the human affairs in the film are below her as she ascends to the status of a god. This is, again, another element of Dr. Manhattan. She just never quite reaches his level of cynicism, and still believes she'll change the world for the better by introducing new knowledge. Whether she will change the world for the better or not is left unsaid; Immediately after her ascension, a man is shot to death on her throne.

Final Thoughts

Like many critics, I rolled my eyes the first time I saw Lucy's trailers, but I'm very glad I gave it a shot. This isn't a movie about science, and it's got no more interest in realism than X-Men or any other super-powered blockbuster. A spider bite isn't going to turn you into a bug-man, radiation will not turn you into a grumpy green giant, and using your whole brain isn't going to turn you into a god. It's silly and openly dumb when it needs to be while feeling playful rather than sarcastic.

The pacing's great, the effects are nice, there's lots of imagery to dig through, and the satirical bits are pretty funny. Overall it's been one of the more pleasant surprises this year, and I'm happy to see that it's doing well. It's R-rated, stars a female lead, and isn't a franchise film, yet it made back its $40 million budget in its first weekend in North America alone. It's simultaneously braver, weirder, and lovably dumber than anything Marvel Studios has put out and I really appreciate that.

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