Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Review: Lucy

by Adam Riske
Lucy is bonkers and I greatly enjoyed it.

I am not much of a fan of the ubiquitous Luc Besson (his previous effort, The Family, was one of my least favorite movies of 2013), but I found Lucy to be a rather exhilarating high-wire act that threatens constantly to fall flat on its face, yet never does. Even if you don’t enjoy the movie, you’d have to admit that Lucy dares to be different. It feels original and fresh even though it’s completely absurd. It is not stock summer entertainment.

Lucy borrows elements of Limitless, The Matrix and The Tree of Life and weaves them into a brisk 90 minute package of total cinema that goes all the way with its premise. I was looking forward to seeing this movie based on its trailer, but I had no idea the finished product would look as it does. And I’m grateful for that. The kick-ass action movie I was promised is actually something closer to...well, I have no idea. I was constantly surprised and never would have guessed in a million years where this story winds up. That’s an exciting prospect in an ever-predictable movie landscape.
I want to give major props to Lucy’s star Scarlett Johansson for continuing to pick such weird projects (on the heels of the brilliant Under the Skin and Her) and using her movie star charisma to help put over what could be daunting premises. Lucy is an interesting performance for her. The beginning of the movie portrays Lucy as a party girl and Johansson conveys that convincingly by channeling the flirty charm of her Natasha Romanov character in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but she adeptly switches gears as Lucy progresses. I think the movie is making the point that increased intelligence (and technology) de-personalizes the individual, and Johansson’s performance bears that out. Her performance becomes more flat, robotic and cold as the movie advances and Lucy’s mental capacity soars.

On the other end of the spectrum is Morgan “I’m cashing a check” Freeman, who truly needs to get off his ass and pick a part that requires him to act again. His part is Dr. Exposition, responsible for explaining the premise to the audience (literally in the context of the movie) and making sure we understand what will happen to our heroine over the next 75 minutes. I am a Freeman fan, but this shtick is wearing thin. He’s giving a Through the Wormhole performance here. I’m so bored by this once-great actor.
Lucy is a messy movie (and probably the least subtle of 2014), but that didn’t detract from my enjoyment of it. It’s great trash. Many critics have complained that it’s a dumb movie about intellect or that it is mindless and I think that’s maybe missing the point a bit. It’s not a movie that is respectful of the audience’s intelligence or teaching us something new, no, but it’s a smart movie. I think Besson knows exactly what he’s doing and it’s intelligent in its style. The movie makes up its own rules as it goes along but I never found that frustrating because when I was about to get frustrated, it went in a new, crazy direction I would have never expected (you’ll know what I’m talking about when you see it) and I was so impressed that a movie was even crazy enough to go there. As I said earlier, this whole thing could have fallen apart at any time and I don’t feel that it does.

The movie has two great scenes I want to call out that are crucial to Lucy’s success. The first is the opening sequence that sets up the story in which Lucy is given a mysterious briefcase and has to deliver it to a group of gangsters. Right off the bat, the movie had me with its sense of danger and excitement. That immediate momentum never lagged for the rest of the movie. The second is a scene you don’t get often in this type of movie, where Lucy calls her mom and has a brief but heartfelt conversation with her. Not only does this scene make you care a little bit more about Johansson’s character, but also gives the movie some much needed heart. This is a story about a girl thrust into extraordinary circumstances and it’s sweet that one of her first reactions would be that she would want to call her mother. Many twenty-somethings have strong relationships with their parents; this is a fact that is often ignored in movies. Not in Lucy.

Lucy is also interesting thematically. I’m not sure how successful it gets its points across, but I think it has something to say about drugs (e.g. pills) as a promise of unlocking one’s potential and whether or not that’s a good thing. Also, the movie touches on what a person loses on their path to self-actualization – it could be their humanity.
I don’t know if Lucy will hold up on multiple viewings – I think it’s the type of movie that works once while it maintains its mystery – but I will say this was one of summer’s biggest surprises and another example of what a great year 2014 has been for the Sci-Fi genre. It’s worth checking out even if you wind up hating it.

Note: Lucy features a great score by Eric Serra (GoldenEye) and beautiful production design (Hugues Tissandier, Taken) and cinematography (Thierry Arbogast, The Fifth Element). It’s one of the best looking and sounding movies I’ve seen in a while.

43 comments:

  1. Thanks for the thought-provoking review. The movie did not work for me, but I am willing to concede that might be a reflection on my expectations and limitations as a viewer. I am intrigued by your comment: ".. it's a smart movie. I think Besson knows exactly what he’s doing and it’s intelligent in its style." Please elaborate a bit more on what you mean by intelligent in it's style.

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    1. Thanks Ivan. By intelligent in style I meant that it all seemed deliberate and of a piece in how the story was portrayed e.g. the photography, pacing, music, production design. It was a very technically put together movie I thought.

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    2. Thanks for the response, Adam. I agree that the filmmaking decisions were evident throughout the movie. Unfortunately, that kept pulling me out of the story. At best, I was thinking about the editing, cinematography, and post-production. At worst, I was developing a visceral dislike for the movie's lack of subtlety.

      I like your comment regarding the scene where Lucy calls her mother; it's the centerpiece of the movie. I wish the story would have continued to explore the points it raises regarding heightened perceptions, sense memory, and emotional response. Instead, the character became increasingly dehumanized and I became progressively less invested in her fate.

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  2. Great review Adam - this does sound like a lot of fun and I'll probably go see it, but I am getting a little tired of the old "100% of our brain" trope. I hate to bring science into this but c'mon, we all use 100% of our brain, knock it off with perpetuating that 10% myth.

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    1. I don't read so it all seems new to me :-)

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    2. I also meant to comment on your Morgan Freeman call-out - totally deserved! I love the guy and he's one of my favourites but he really does need something a bit juicier than "a pleasant voice to hear explaining stuff to you". Funnily enough one of the last things I watched him in where I felt he was actually playing a real character was the Besson-written Unleashed which has a really good performance from him and, I thought, great performances from Jet Li and Bob Hoskins.

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    3. Sol
      I have to say that I am right there with you. When I saw the trailer and the tag about brain usage I sighed and knew I had no interest in this film. I too am sick of that old trope/myth.

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    4. Get busy acting or get busy slacking.

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  3. I thought it was a garbage movie. It pretended to have a lot to say while not saying a thing. The opening sequence was fine, but I didn't feel that anything about the movie was original. It felt forced and rushed to me.

    Thanks for the review...Gonna live with it for a bit and re-read in a couple days.

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    1. Thanks for commenting Steve. I can understand why people don't like the movie. Just my opinion, no more no less. I can't remember seeing anything quite like it. It took a ridiculous premise and went all out on the ridiculousness of it.

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    2. Yeah, after reading your review, I want to think about it and revisit. When I walked out, I felt like I continuously thought it was not good while watching it and didn't really expect that there might be some articulated counter point. I didn't spend time in my head questioning whether my gut reaction was right for me or was too knee jerk. Your review was enough to make me want to spend more time thinking about it. Don't know that I will change my mind, but either way, it is cool that there is something worth thinking about...win/win.

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    3. I usually believe in always going with your gut impression as long as I take it a step further and analyze that impression. There's usually something there. E.G. I didn't like Gravity and when I thought about why it didn't work for me, I realized I had legitimate reasons for the way I felt. It didn't matter that no one agreed with me.

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  4. I think the 100% tag is an unnecessary distraction. Perhaps the premise should have been stated as, "A synthesized drug based on a hormone that drives human development enables people to perceive, think, and control their surroundings far more intensely." This might help alleviate some of the issues viewers are having with the movie's faux science, and would better position it as a superhero origin story rather than science fiction. This would also amplify any underlying themes regarding the unintended consequences of pharmaceuticals, obsession with self-improvement, or even DNA/genome research.

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    1. Yeah what you said sounds way better. I just looked more closely at the poster to see that fucking drivel is written right on there: "The average person uses 10% of their brain capacity. Imagine what she could do with 100%." I'm going to make a movie about an amazing artist based on this premise: "The average person can only see 8 different colours. Imagine what he could do seeing all of them." You know, just make some bullshit up and base a movie on it.

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    2. It's also stated overtly in the movie, to the point of large numerals on a blank screen denoting her progress through the story.

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    3. Sol
      How about this for a film; "The average person only uses 10% of their taste buds. What happens when you can use them all?" The Wine Taster.

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    4. I'm picking up earthy aromas with hints of barnyard.

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    5. I like it - my one note: I think it'll play better at Cannes if we call it "The Sommelier". Or even better: "Le Sommelier".

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    6. "Le Sommelier" -The film Fran├žois Truffaut never made.

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    7. I saw that. It starred Barkhad Abdi. It won the Palm Door and the Can Film Festival.

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  5. I haven't seen Lucy yet, but I actually enjoyed The Family, so I'm looking forward to it.

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  6. Adam, I think you nailed it-- the "popcorn movies" this summer are so much better than in year's past. Patrick touched on this in his review of Hercules yesterday. I tip my hat to dumb fun done right.

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    1. I thought Hercules was fairly self aware....I didn't feel that way about Lucy with my initial reaction...

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  7. Thanks for the review Adam. It made me think about a couple of things I hadn't even considered such as the movie's comment on drug use. I too didn't care much for the movie, mostly because I couldn't get over how much it seemed at odds with the new directions it would take. It gives us an interesting idea such as Lucy's evolution beyond the need for pain, but still expects us to fear for her safety when people put a gun to her head. I might have rolled with it more if they followed through with stuff like that, but it seemed to want to be both a philosophical rumination on our potential and a mindless action pic and I don't think they compliment each other well here. But I do agree that it was a very good looking movie and featured a decent performance by Johannson. You're totally right, it's worth seeing once even if you'll dislike it.

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  8. I thought the movie was rather forgettable (and yes, messy) outside of a pretty great Scarlett Johansson performance. She's gotten quite a bit more interesting to me in 2014, and I hope that streak only continues. As I said in my own review, I just hope she finds better material in which to be interesting.

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    1. Yeah, I totally get what you're saying about starting to find Scarlett Johansson more interesting recently. I used to really like her and then she went through a boring performance period and now she's always interesting and very charismatic.

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  9. I could care about the "10% of the brain" thing...movies have always been, and will always be, about suspension of disbelief. One of my favorite flicks EVER has a thunder god and a giant green rage monster in featured roles. That didn't bother me; this won't either.

    It looks like a fun time, and your review made me feel pretty sure that I'd get exactly that, Adam. Great piece!

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    1. One of your favorite movies is The Virgin Spring?

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    2. I see your point and I can look past it and enjoy the movie, I just find it annoying that they're (a) setting a reference point in their story that's supposedly grounded in reality and (b) perpetuating a weird myth that too many people believe already.

      Also, I like to (a) complain things that don't really matter and (b) try to sound smart. :P

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    3. It's entirely too late to drink coffee, and the universe just punished me for doing so by allowing me to see your comment while I was trying to drink some, Patrick.

      Completely unrelated note...inhaling coffee: more painful than you remember it being, every single time.

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  10. Didn't understand the reference so I had to Google.... I am such a loser.
    So is House on the Left a hotel flick or a revenge flick? Never saw it, but the plot sounded satisfying.

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  11. I hae yet to see Lucy, since I went to Hercules instead; and with Guardians, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Into the Storm coming out I doubt I'll see it theaters. But I can't believe how much this movie this took in during its first weekend.

    Typically Luc Besson movies don't perform all that well (outside of Taken and The Fifth Element), and having a female heroine as the lead is always risky. I think this shows that Johansson is becoming a draw, and that becoming a Marvel character has really ignited her career. After this week I'd imagine Marvel is already drafting a script for a Black Widow solo movie for Phase 4 (or whatever phase they're on). I just hope a Black Widow movie is much better than Elektra, Catwoman, Aeon Flux, and ugh Supergirl...

    Oh and I was joking about what movies I'll be seeing next week; no way will I be seeing Guardians.

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    1. I think it's funny that you're dissing seeing Guardians but you're going to Into the Storm :-)

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    2. Sorry, but that was kinda tongue in cheek (mouse in keyboard?). I already have my tickets for Guardians for Thursday. I'd rather watch Sharknado than Into the Storm..Although I do hate being one of those pretentious hipsters that watched Sharknado as merely a social experiment, but that would be denying who I am.

      But at least Sharknado is free whereas I'd have to pay to watch yet another miserable Sarah Wayne Callies performance in the other one.

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    3. The waitress at lunch strongly encouraged Adam and I to watch SHARKNADO.

      SPOILER - I thought LUCY was ok, and I understand that it's a ridiculous premise with a ridiculous story, but I found the story's message that a human at peak mental capacity is a dispassionate, cold sentient being to be pretty awful. Professor Freeman's lecture notwithstanding, I don't think that a human's peak potential only comes down to the biological directive of reproduction/survival. Aaaand I've now officially thought too much about this. LUCY is fine, everyone.

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    4. I'm going again tonight to see Lucy BECAUSE THERE IS NOTHING TO SEE WHEN YOU'VE GONE TO THE MOVIES FOR 30 DAYS IN A ROW

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    5. Yeah, I think so. The problems in it are obvious but there's enough I liked where I can forgive them. I remember Patrick said very early on in F This Movie that you're either "with" a movie or "not with" a movie. I'm in the former on Lucy.

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