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movie review

In ‘Lucy,’ a heroine’s brain fires on all cylinders

Is the position of Earth’s alien overlord currently open? Because I think Scarlett Johansson’s gunning for the job. In last year’s “Her,” the actress played the voice of a sentient computer system that expands to fill the known universe, while the recent cult hit “Under the Skin” posited her as extraterrestrial man-bait linked to a spooky hive mind. Now Luc Besson’s “Lucy” puts the two together and ups the ante. By the end of this latest piece of highly entertaining claptrap from the director of “La Femme Nikita” and “The Fifth Element,” Johansson is on the verge of becoming nothing less than God. And, no, we’re not worthy.

Her character starts the film as a rather dim American student in Taipei, arguing with her sleazy Dutch boyfriend (Pilou Asbaek, from “A Hijacking”) about an attaché case he needs her to drop off. This being a Besson movie, things go south very quickly and very stylishly, and Lucy finds herself in the clutches of Asian drug lord Mr. Jang (Choi Min-sik, the original “Oldboy” himself). She’s one of his mules bound for the capitals of Europe, a brand-new club drug bagged and surgically tucked up in her lower intestines.


Unfortunately for Lucy, the bag bursts open. Fortunately for the movie, the massive dose allows Lucy to gradually access 100 percent of her brain rather than your and my measly 10 percent. At 20 percent she can translate Mandarin on the fly and shoot bad guys with pinpoint precision. At 40 percent, she can move furniture with her mind. You don’t want to know what 80 percent looks like.

Wait, wasn’t Bradley Cooper here in 2011’s “Limitless”? Yes, but “Lucy” takes the concept into eerier and more visually baroque territory than that much-underappreciated genre film. Where a fully juiced cerebellum just made Cooper’s character really, really capable, Lucy undergoes a metaphysical makeover that, by the film’s midpoint, has started to rearrange time, space, and her body.


(And, wait, isn’t that whole “we only use 10 percent of our brains” concept pure neurobiology urban legend? Yes, it is — by all accounts, most of our lights are on at any given time — but who comes to a Besson movie seeking logic? “Lucy” stays true to its own invented physics, and, besides, if it’s real fake science you want, “I Origins” is opening in area theaters this Friday as well. Here’s the review.)

“Lucy” does pose an interesting question, though: How would a superwoman appear to us mortals? As she goes through her changes, the heroine’s demeanor changes from scared to awed to . . . preoccupied. Maybe even a little robotic (and here the similarity to “Under the Skin” seems overt). Cursed and blessed with a giant throbbing brain, the poor woman multitasks away, searching the cellular data she can see streaming from our phones (it ascends to the skies like multicolored marionette strings), typing on two laptops at once, and generally taking care of ontological business while the other characters pester her like gnats.

Make that heavily armed gnats. Mr. Jang and his minions are on Lucy’s case as the action shifts to Paris; and because Besson needs a trusted face to explain the nonsense, we have Morgan Freeman as the world’s most lovable authority on theoretical brain enhancement. (There’s a TV series in here somewhere: “Shiva and the Professor.”) Lucy also likes to keep around a cute French police detective (Amr Waked), if only to remember what being human once felt like.


As a filmmaker, Besson is as audacious as he is shallow, and you know you’re in good hands early on when he intercuts Lucy’s initial foray into Mr. Jang’s lair with bloody nature footage from the Serengeti. Toward the end, as Lucy amasses further powers and things with tentacles start happening, the movie resembles ’80s Cronenberg (good) and ’80s De Palma (not so good), with a chunk of late-’60s Kubrick tossed in to keep the stoners guessing.

It’s all ridiculous and enjoyable, and at the movie’s center is an actress creatively guessing at what omniscience might feel like. I don’t know any other movie star going where Johansson has gone lately — certainly among the crop that sells magazine covers — and it’s probably beside the point asking whether she’s tired of the standard roles offered to pillow-lipped young actresses or is actively engaged in exploring the outer limits of power and perception. Of classic stars it was said “They had faces then.” Well, Johansson has a brain, and it appears to be expanding at an alarming rate. Somebody call the professor.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.