Review:  ‘Lucy’ is an action-packed waste of brain power

Scarlett Johansson in "Lucy."
Scarlett Johansson in “Lucy.”
(Universal Pictures)

Something like the offspring of a shotgun marriage between Carl Sagan and Quentin Tarantino, the Scarlett Johansson-starring “Lucy” is part philosophical/scientific treatise, part action movie, a film that goes from mayhem to boredom in a heartbeat.

“Lucy’s” writer-director is French veteran Luc Besson, whose creative personality is similarly split between auteur aspirations and mainstream success (including co-writing and producing Liam Neeson’s “Taken” series). His films have often featured female action heroes — 1990’s “La Femme Nikita” is one of his signature works — and it’s not surprising that Universal is trying to sell “Lucy” as something similar.

Instead, “Lucy” is an eccentric, idiosyncratic riff founded on the oft-expressed notion that human beings use only 10% of their brain capacity. What would happen, Besson wonders, if someone were able to access all 100%? What would that look like? What would that even mean? As Lucy herself asks provocatively at the start, “Life was given to us a billion years ago. What have we done with it?”

Before we get to all the hard-core scientific stuff, some down and dirty exposition has to be gotten out of the way. Lucy is presented as a standard-issue party girl going to school in Taiwan, a dim innocent who is manipulated by her scumbag boyfriend into taking a locked metal case into a high-end hotel and asking for a certain Mr. Jang.


As played by Korean actor Choi Min-sik (the star of “Oldboy”), Mr. Jang turns out to be a totally evil drug dealer, introduced literally washing the blood off his hands after personally dishing out the kind of rough justice evil drug dealers are known for dispensing.

Inside that metal case, as it happens, are several bags containing strange blue crystals, a newly created drug of unimaginable power. It’s called CPH4 and is said to be the synthetic version of a substance pregnant mothers secrete to help their fetuses grow: “For a baby,” someone portentously says, “it packs the power of an atomic bomb.”

Much against her will, Lucy is shanghaied into being a drug mule and has to submit to a bag of this blue stuff being sewn into her stomach — not to mention having leering gangsters threaten her with other kinds of humiliations.

Intercut with all these depredations are shots of a Paris-based professor named Samuel Norman (Morgan Freeman), nominally one of the world’s reigning experts on the human brain, giving a series of droning lectures bemoaning that we use so little of our mental capacity.


The professor’s lectures, indeed the entire film, are for some reason shot through with so many clips of animal behavior that it’s possible to feel you’re watching a season of “Wild Kingdom.” It’s not every action film that has a closing credit for “Indian Rhino mating footage,” but this one does.

Brutal mistreatment at the hands of Lucy’s captors leads to the bag in her stomach bursting, and all of a sudden, the Juice Is Loose. That incredibly powerful drug gets released into Lucy’s bloodstream, and she is soon literally climbing the walls as large type on the screen shows us what percentage of brain power she is using (Hint: It’s always getting higher.)

The first scenes of the drug kicking in are “Lucy’s” most conventional and most entertaining, as our heroine discovers an escalating series of superpowers: She can read minds, learn new languages instantly, is impervious to pain, stuff like that.

Lucy uses her abilities to take revenge on some of the people who did her in, but gradually, as her powers increase and she becomes one with the universe, it becomes clear that no human being on Earth is ever going to touch her, let alone some ragtag bunch of drug dealers out to get even.


Of course, these drug dealers don’t know that, so Besson throws in several pro forma gun battles and even a car chase down the crowded sidewalk of Paris’ Rue de Rivoli, but his heart is not in action-set pieces but rather in peculiar speculation about the nature of reality and the meaning of life.

So what suspense the film has is focused on whether, in collaboration with Professor Norman, Lucy can convey all she’s learned via her Yoda-like mastery of space and time (“I remember the taste of your milk in my mouth,” she tells her flabbergasted mother) and help the puny human race advance. We are not worthy, Lucy, we’re really not.




MPAA rating: R, for strong violence, disturbing images, and sexuality

Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes

Playing: In general release