Brains prevailed over brawn at the box office this weekend (in a manner of speaking) as the Scarlett Johansson action-thriller "Lucy" collected $44 million, handily beating Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson's sword-and-sandals movie "Hercules," which earned $29 million.
But how did "Lucy," an R-rated European action flick, trounce a PG-13 tent-pole with a proven action hero? Here are five reasons for "Lucy's" success.
A catchy sci-fi hook: Credit writer-director Luc Besson for cannily turning a common bit of pseudoscience — the notion that humans use only 10% of our brains — into an action-ready premise. "Lucy" finds Johansson playing a party girl turned unwitting drug mule who accidentally ingests massive quantities of an illicit substance that expands her mental capacity, blessing her with superpowers including telekinesis, super-intelligence and mind control.
Never mind that the "10% of brain myth" is 100% false — "Lucy" is a popcorn movie, not a neuroscience documentary.
Scarlett Johansson, action star: "Lucy" should mark Johansson's coming-out party as a bona fide action star. Although the 29-year-old is best known as a dramatic actress, earning critical acclaim for her performances in movies like "Her" and "Under the Skin," she has recently branched out into butt-kicking in Marvel movies such as "The Avengers" and "Captain America: The Winter Soldier."
In the latter movies, Johansson has served as an ensemble player, but "Lucy" puts her front and center. So far, she's delivering: "Lucy's" opening ranks as the third-highest female-driven action movie of all time, behind Angelina Jolie's "Wanted" and "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider."
Luc Besson, crowd pleaser: "Lucy" is the latest 90-minute shot of adrenaline from Besson, the prolific French multi-hyphenate who helped bring the world "The Professional," "The Fifth Element," and the "Taken" and "Transporter" franchises. Clearly, he knows a thing or two about making kinetic pulp movies that resonate with mainstream audiences.
A summer of strong women: Besson is also a filmmaker with a penchant for crafting strong female characters, from Anne Parillaud's Nikita in "La Femme Nikita" to Zoe Saldana's Cataleya in "Colombiana." Johansson's Lucy is the latest example and comes amid a summer in which some of the biggest hits have been powered by compelling women, including "Maleficent" (with Jolie) and "The Fault in Our Stars" (with Shailene Woodley).
According to exit-poll data, "Lucy" attracted an audience that was evenly split between men and women; in contrast, "Hercules" appealed to a narrower audience, one that was about 58% male.
A slick marketing campaign: "Lucy" first popped up on many moviegoers' radar courtesy of a sleek, propulsive trailer showcasing the movie's high concept, Johansson's newfound action chops and Besson's deft touch for mayhem. Marketing for the Universal film continued to play up those elements while de-emphasizing "Lucy's" philosophical and metaphysical pontificating.
That was probably a shrewd decision — indeed, many critics found the film's philosophizing silly — though it likely contributed to "Lucy's" C+ CinemaScore, which suggests word-of-mouth will suffer. Time will tell if "Lucy" has enough brain power to endure at the box office in the coming weeks.