Scarlett Johansson is having a big year, appearing in several big budget features (Her, Under the Skin). Luc Besson is consistently a commercial success with a range of films, from gritty violent fare (The Taken and Transporter series), to simmering and suspenseful action (The Professional, Nikita) to his space opera spectacle The Fifth Element. Lucy, starring ScarJo, is definitely of the first category. It is already cleaning up at the box office, but the film itself is a bit of a mess, thanks in part to a flawed central premise.
It is largely circulated that humans only use only 10 percent of their brains. This notion is a highly misunderstood myth spread by media for nearly a century and has no scientific ground. To quote neurologist Barry Beyerstein:
“It strains credulity to think that evolution would have permitted squandering of resources on a scale necessary to build and maintain such a massively underutilized organ…There does not seem to be any area of the brain that can be destroyed by strokes, head trauma, or other manner, without leaving the patient with some kind of functional deficit.”
Yet, the brain myth continues to flourish as a proxy for our desire for excellence—an evolutionary trait that actually makes sense on an individual level. A preternaturally athletic and charismatic individual who speaks several languages, manipulates computer code and kicks ass all while looking sexy is certainly a prized specimen, the paragon of a technocratic world. But what does a prized individual have to do with the evolution of an entire species?
The brain myth serves as a vehicle for discussions of human potential and personal power in films such as Limitless (Bradley Cooper) or The Matrix (Keanu Reeves). In Lucy, the brain myth is used as justification, and not even a necessary one, for its other tropes: the ultimate femme fatale, a jump forward in human evolution.
Johansson’s character, Lucy, is kidnapped by a crew of elite criminals, who then use her as an unwilling mule for a package containing a powerful brain-altering drug. When the drug leaks into Lucy’s blood stream, she is transformed instantly from victim into a lethal, revenge-seeking powerhouse. Willful suspension of disbelief is one thing, but the science in Lucy is shockingly bad, and Besson loses the audience with a documentary-style, force-fed delivery of evolution, human history and ticking-time-bomb brain in the lead female character. Lucy is also Lucy the Australopithecus…and then there is the earth and bad guys and a hot Italian cop and the universe and Lucy remembers her mother’s milk and computers and…
Okay, just stop, Besson!
Lucy would have served more as film if the character’s personal history would have been presented and the audience realized her transformation as an individual, and if the botched science was not so glaring or at least used to deliver a message of personal awareness and potential. Besson instead spins and layers his pseudo-science, cramming a prehistoric Lucy with the modern Lucy, all to worship at the altar of humanity at its most exquisitely violent and vengeful, personified in its heroine.
This is not a “strong female character,” by the way; there isn’t enough depth to call her much of a character at all. Unlike Besson’s Nikita, there is no arc, no complexity, no moral stakes. Leeloo in The Fifth Element had something childish and universal about her, despite her impish personality and clipped dialog, and her arc was to become more vulnerable and human in spite of her great power. Lucy/Lucy is by contrast a shell, a fetish for the victim avenging herself, and incidentally benefiting the rest of us.
We expect this from action movies, our superheroes and antiheroes, and Besson has made his share of revenge fantasies. But it is hard to enjoy a film even as escapism when the narrative bumbles into half-formed ideas of our place in the universe and makes its symbol of human potential a violent vigilante with little humanity to speak of at all. To use another pseudo-scientific term, it’s a devolution, not an evolution. We see the effects of this syndrome in politics, with dictators ruling against the people’s needs for a cult of personality. In fiction, a pretty face kicking ass may work for a few hours on our killer instincts, but walking away our better instincts know the logical end of such narcissism is nothing pretty.
Lucy is showing at Regal Meridian 16 (501 7th Ave) and Cinerama (2100 4th Ave) in downtown Seattle. #lucymovie