Nov 22, 2019
Lucy (2014): Scarlett Johansson becomes God
I wasn’t expecting much out of Lucy. Not that I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it; It’s directed by Luc Besson, who can usually be relied upon for an engaging action flick, often with a decent sense of humor. It’s got a fun (if rote) premise of a random person developing extraordinary powers and basically becoming a superhero without the costume. And it promised the spectacle of Scarlett Johansson kicking ass and looking gorgeous, the two things she does best. So I imagined I was in for a fun diversion that’d I mostly forget about afterwards.
…Guys? I love Lucy*.
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Like, I really loved the shit out of Lucy. It’s the kind of movie I didn’t see coming, and afterwards I wanted to go out and tell everyone I knew, “Go see this, guys! You have no idea what you’re missing! This shit is insane!” Which is weird, because if I’m being honest, the movie isn’t objectively all that good.
Don’t mistake that for “bad”. I just mean the movie isn’t exactly a masterpiece. It’s simplistic, completely lacking in subtlety, and might come across as mildly-to-immensely pretentious depending on your tastes. It has the plot structure of a video game, but the tone of a high-minded art film.
But despite all that, I fell in love with it almost from the first frame. Lucy is one of those sci-fi films in the vein of The Matrix or Equilibrium, in that it’s not nearly as smart or as deep as it thinks it is, but it’s so sincere and uncompromising that I can’t help but love it. The ideas put forth in Lucy are old hat, but this may be the first time I’ve seen a film be this frickin’ ballsy about it. This is a movie that steadfastly refuses to water down its message for mass consumption, and has absolutely no qualms about making its audience think some uncomfortable thoughts. It has things to say that I’ve been wanting movies to say forever, and now I finally got my wish.
But I’m being too vague. Let me break down for you just how wonderfully nuts this movie is.
SPOILERS, if you haven’t seen it yet.
Right from the opening scene, Lucy makes it clear that it’s out to be way more than the trailers promised. Based on the advertising, you’d assume Lucy is basically a revenge movie: Lucy gets kidnapped to be a drug mule, accidentally gains superpowers, and goes after the people responsible. Nothing so simple is in store for us here. The movie opens with what looks like a deleted scene from The Tree of Life, with a prehistoric man drinking from a stream. And then Scarlett Johansson appears, sitting in an office chair and staring at him.
Yeah, this is a weird movie.
The movie then lays out its thesis right up front, which is that the purpose of life is to accumulate knowledge and pass it on. Once Lucy herself is introduced, it’s immediately pointed out that she shares her name with the famous fossilized skeleton of an Australopithecus afarensis, a female ape with human-like feet, or as the movie says, the “first girl ever”. Like I said, this movie is not subtle.
If you came into Lucy looking for an action film, you might be a little disappointed, because that’s not where its focus lies at all. There are maybe one or two action scenes, the highlight being a car chase that weaves through congested Paris streets. The rest is less action and more “Scarlett Johansson just walks through dudes”. When your lead character is basically ascending to omnipotence as the movie progresses, there really aren’t a lot of challenges you can throw at her.
And I do mean omnipotence: Lucy is a movie in which Scarlett Johansson becomes God. That’s not a figurative statement—she literally becomes God. That’s how bananas this movie gets. It’s like the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey if it spelled everything out for you. She slowly gets smarter and more powerful, gaining a knowledge and understanding about the universe beyond anything we’ve yet discovered, until she finally transcends her physical form in a trippy series of images straight out of an episode of Cosmos.
Of course, we’ve seen stories about human beings gaining godlike powers before. Gary Mitchell, Doctor Manhattan, and the Lawnmower Man have all walked this path before Lucy. But these stories have almost always been cautionary tales. They warn us that man has no right to “play god”. In any other movie, Lucy would likely have ended up the villain. At worst, she would have abused her powers, and at best, she would have become emotionless, dispassionate, and inhuman.
But at no point does Lucy even pretend to go that route. Only once is the idea even brought up that maybe the world “isn’t ready for this”, which is immediately shot down with a line that made me want to stand up and cheer: “Knowledge doesn’t cause chaos; ignorance does.”
And therein lies the magic of Lucy that won me over. It has the courage to go places that I’ve never seen a film go before. I’m so used to science fiction being counter-intuitively anti-science. Too often in fiction, progress is treated as something terrifying, and rarely is it seen as something to be embraced. We’ve been trained to view intelligence and reason as fundamentally inhuman qualities. The more intelligent a character is, the more disconnected from humanity he/she is portrayed. Smart people are emotionless and antisocial. Hell, in Star Trek, the mere fact that Spock was intelligent and logical was treated as a literally alien quality. We’ve taught ourselves that emotion and empathy are somehow the opposite of intelligence and reason.
But in Lucy, it’s quite the opposite. Lucy’s new awareness actually makes her more in touch with her emotions, more empathetic, and overall more human than she was before. She shows compassion even for her enemies, and seems to progressively value human life more as she becomes smarter. In one scene, she gives her roommate a health plan to extend her life, armed with complete understanding of the human body. The highlight of the movie is a scene where a newly godlike Lucy calls her mother and tearfully describes how she can now perfectly recall every moment of her life since birth, and how she never realized the depth of her mother’s love for her. She can now recall everything about infancy, even being breastfed. I realize it sounds silly out of context, but as delivered, the scene is poignantly beautiful.
Johansson’s performance is what really sells it. I’ve always known she was a good actress, but Lucy reminded me of that in big way. She’s perfect in this movie, somehow conveying a character who’s meant to be experiencing omniscience while never coming across as emotionless or cold. Someone hire her to play a Vulcan immediately (on second thought, don’t—she’s way too good for Reboot Trek). She’s convincingly “above” everything happening around her, but she never seems detached or robotic. She genuinely seems to be experiencing things on a new level. She’s almost childlike, yet awe-inspiring. She says things that might otherwise sound pretentious, like responding to a man expressing concern for his life with, “We never really die.”
Lucy is far from perfectly crafted, but its unflinching courage won me over. It might actually end up on my top ten list for the year. Better a mess of a movie with guts and sincerity than a well-crafted movie that’s boring and trite. Check it out if you still can; I’d hate to see something this unique get overlooked.