'Lucy' in the sky, no diamonds

Scarlett Johansson's superpowers can't save Luc Besson's latest

Monday July 28, 2014 04:00 am EDT

Surely Scarlett Johansson must be the first leading lady ever to speak the line, "I am colonizing my own brain." The circumstances for this strange utterance are explained (and explained and explained) by none other than Morgan Freeman in the new action sci-fi movie Lucy.

It's widely understood by most people that the sci-fi thriller and the academic lecture are two incompatible forms, but director Luc Besson was apparently undeterred. Lucy opens with a compellingly rapid-fire sequence of events in which Johannson, playing Lucy, an American student studying in Taiwan, gets helplessly caught up in the drug-smuggling underworld; she ends up being forced to act as a drug mule carrying a dangerous new substance from Asia to Europe in her tummy. All this is intercut with scenes of Morgan Freeman as a professor lecturing about his theories on evolution and the human brain to a roomful of graduate students. The lecture is, even by sci-fi movie standards, hokey, painfully long and, as it turns out, based on ideas that are incorrect. A class has never been so in need of Cliff's Notes. Here they are: the drug is released into Lucy's system, allowing her to access all sections of her brain, and she becomes amazingly smart and powerful.

For some reason that isn't particularly clear, Lucy decides she must meet Freeman's character face-to-face and also track down the other drug mules who are carrying packages like hers. Johannson does this with an admirably brusque and affectless efficiency, whether she's surfing the Internet on several laptops at once, dealing with an annoying stewardess, or facing a firing line of Taiwanese gangsters.

Besson was obviously aiming to create a Matrix-like film, an entertaining movie with a trippy, philosophical point of view, but his ideas aren't as intriguing as those of the Wachowskis. And the character Lucy quickly becomes so powerful that the film has nowhere to go; once a character can control time and reality, there aren't a lot of interesting things that can happen to her. The final scenes seemingly build up to a confrontation with the Taiwanese drug lord who put her in this awful situation. But what sort of showdown can it really amount to? She's marshaling all the forces of the universe; he has a pistol. The film has a moderately interesting "Twilight Zone"-like twist at the end, that places womankind, the new Lucy and the ancient protohuman one, as parallel mothers and saviors of the human race.

The action sequences are mostly dull, which is unforgiveable in an action movie. There's a car chase through Paris that looks a lot like every other car chase through Paris you've ever seen. If the story isn't cool, there's always the hope things will at look the part, but I think even here Lucy disappoints.

There's a neat scene in which Lucy can not only see cell phone transmissions and other wireless communications as they leave their devices, she can reach out, scroll through them and read their information, but that's an effect you can see in the trailer. I think the big finale of goopy, black tentacles extending across white floors will fail to make even the most diehard effects fan feel that the price of admission was money well spent. Lucy is talky, flat, silly, and uninteresting to look at.

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