There’s a popular myth often perpetuated in movies that humans only employ a small percentage of their brain’s capacity. One of the reasons this idea endures is the following assertion that there is the potential for us to unlock untapped mental power if only we could breach the fabled 10% barrier. With just a sliver more brain power, we might be super-intelligent or have even greater capabilities. These myths form the basis of The Fifth Element (1997) director Luc Besson’s latest science fiction adventure, Lucy (2014), starring the excellent Scarlett Johansson. Having taken the US box office by storm, this undeniably silly, but raucously entertaining, off-the-wall transhumanist actioner is an absolute riot.
The plot opens with the eponymous Lucy (Johansson), an American student in Taipei, arguing with her ne’er-do-well boyfriend. He is trying to convince her to act as courier for him, by delivering a mysterious locked briefcase to the equally enigmatic Mr. Jang (Oldboy’s Choi Min-sik). The deal goes sour, concluding with Lucy awaking in a hotel room to find that a packet of potent drugs have been secreted in her intestine for enforced smuggling to Europe. Things take a further twist when the packet splits in Lucy’s stomach sending an exorbitant amount of the contents into her bloodstream. Before you can blink, she is accessing areas of her brain never accessed before, resulting in a myriad of cool powers manifesting as she begins to evolve beyond humanity whilst also seeking to thwart Mr. Jang’s deal.
So far, so standard sci-fi action thriller, but in fact Lucy has an awful lot more going on than that. Compared by many to the proliferation of superhero movies that currently dominate big budget cinema, the lead character in this is a lot less Marvel and a lot more Doctor Manhattan (of Watchmen fame). As the action jets from Asia to Paris, Besson is not content to just give her abilities such as telepathy and superior reflexes; the car chases are present and exhilarating, but the aim is something far more audacious. Soon, we’re delving into the nature of existence and time itself culminating in a bold blockbuster finale undeniably riffing on Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Star Gate’ sequence at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). If that doesn’t sound barmy enough, just wait until you see the shimmering universal equivalent of the ‘Star Child’.
Johansson is on fantastic form here, playing a hybrid of her two other standout sci-fi roles of the year – she combines the ethereal quality of her performance in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (2013) with the transcendent progression of Samantha in Spike Jonze’s Her (2013). Morgan Freeman provides ample tongue- in-cheek support as walking exposition provider and the knowing tone keeps things amusing even when its shooting for lofty and spouting cod scientific theory. The philosophical leanings of the final act may not be to all tastes, but Lucy’s success thus far would suggest that audiences are happy to take a ride on Besson’s breathlessly grandiose roller-coaster – and who can blame them?