Friday, January 30, 2015

Cult-Movie Review: Lucy (2014)

All life on Earth -- and throughout the universe itself -- is connected.

Human beings would see that fact, and live very differently if only they used their brains to a fuller extent. 

That’s the two-part message underlying director Luc Besson’s electric and imaginative Lucy (2014), an action-infused variation on Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

Much like that classic sci-fi film, Lucy features scenes set at the dawn of man (or dawn of woman, in this case…), and escorts viewers on a stunning third act “ultimate trip” that diagrams the next step of evolution.

Although some reviewers have complained that the Besson film relies on a discredited scientific theory -- the notation that humans utilize only a measly ten percent of their brain -- the concept, faulty or not, works efficiently and poetically in terms of the film’s artistry and message.

This cinematic short-hand about the human brain is the avenue by which Besson explores and charts the idea of our potential, and our too-frequent failure to manifest it. It’s the artist’s way of noting that we all possess the tools to be better, but have trouble accessing them.

If you look around the globe and see the strife and crises brewing in so many places, Besson’s message is one that gets to the very heart of human nature. Lucy powerfully implies that by merely being smarter, we can understand life and each other better. The key to self-knowledge (and true knowledge too) is not to be ignorant or closed off, but to open yourself up, to grow…to acknowledge the vastness of the scheme of things. It is the strong tree that bends, the brittle one that breaks.

To my delight, Besson is a highly visual film director, one universally aware of symbolism, and he relies strongly on the fundamentals of film grammar to forge his points about the nature of life. Therefore, Lucy’s visuals express its content beautifully.  Many images are not only stunning and memorable but resonate in a very specific way. They have been tailored, it appears, to remind viewers that even though we don’t see and think about our connections to our past, to other species on Earth, or to the stars, an invisible bond nonetheless connects us all.

It would be a drag -- and Lucy would be much less visceral too -- if Besson relied merely on words to craft a narrative exploring his central idea. Instead, the viewer experiences ninety minutes of blazing action, and climactic, even transcendent imagery that may make you appreciate both humanity’s smallness in the cosmic sea, and, paradoxically, its bigness too.

Scarlett Johannson, so unforgettable in Under the Skin (2014) proves a remarkable talent here as well. Her character, Lucy, is the key to the film’s success. She plays an “every woman” who one day opens her eyes from a waking-slumber to realize she exists in a much larger universe than she ever imagined. She is so busy being buffeted around from task to task that she can’t stop to really look at her life. The events of the film give her that opportunity.

Seen in light of these ideas -- of awakening, connection, and transcendence -- Lucy is hardly the dumb action movie some critics called it. Instead, it’s a colorful, dynamic, questioning work of art, and in my book we can never get enough films of such imagination and wonder.

“Ignorance brings chaos, not knowledge.”

A young American woman in Taiwan, Lucy (Johansson) gets tricked by a duplicitous boyfriend, Richard (Pilou Asbaek), into delivering a locked briefcase to a local gangster, Mr. Jang (Choi Min-Sik) at his hotel. 

After Richard is killed, Lucy is forced to open the mysterious case. Inside are several tubes of a synthetic drug called CPH4.

Lucy is ordered to become a drug mule for Jang, and to transport the drugs in her stomach to another city.  But after her delivery of the drugs, Lucy is held hostage and brutalized by thugs. After being kicked savagely in the gut, the CPH4 seeps into Lucy’s blood-stream, and she begins to undergo an amazing transformation.

Suddenly, Lucy’s brain begins to re-wire itself, making new connections and opening new doorways. 
Lucy contacts a renowned professor, Dr. Samuel Norman (Morgan Freeman) who has studied the potential of the human brain, and makes him aware of her  surprising evolution. She is now capable of telepathy, the mental control of radio waves, and other strange powers.  But, her new intelligence has also shown Lucy that her “life cycle” may not last more than 24 hours if she doesn’t acquire additional quantities of the drug.

Lucy goes in search of the other drug mules, while promising Dr. Norman that she won’t die without “passing” on the information she has learned, preferably in the form of a new supercomputer and its data drive. 

A French police officer, Del Rio (Amr Waked) helps Lucy in her quest.

As the twenty-four hours near an end, and Lucy uses 100% of her brain’s potential, she undertakes a mental trip to the dawn of time, and to the ends of the universe itself. But Mr. Jang also comes looking for the woman who stole his drugs…

“We humans are more concerned with having than being.”

Lucy’s character arc in Besson’s film is a good one. When first the audience meets Lucy, she informs her boyfriend, Richard, that she is, in essence, scattered, “concentrating on so many things.”

The routine and details of life are oppressing her in some way, so that she can’t be her best self…and she knows it. This is how daily life is for so many of us; so many competing calls for attention; so many things to do.

But before long, Lucy discovers the means by which to improve herself, and see life not as a series of insoluble challenges. Rather, she recognizes that the key to self-knowledge already exists within her.  

It comes not from owning things, but -- rather like the dolphin who can echo-locate by natural means (an example in the film…) -- by exploring the idea of being.

Some may suggest the presence of a strongly feminist message here, and that is appropriate. As the film starts, Lucy is buffeted by others, forced into action by both Richard and Mr. Jang. They assume control of her life and her actions, and Lucy finds herself in constant danger, and in pain under that stewardship.  When Lucy begins to transform, however, she takes control and ownership over her life, and her understanding of it.  No long is she so scattered that she can be blown like the wind from one horrible task to another.  Now it is she -- armed with knowledge and a sense of agency -- who will control her own path, and her own journey.

But outside of sex roles and politics, a part of understanding “being” is also the open acknowledgment that we are all connected in time and space.

To express the concept of connection, Besson relies heavily, at least at the beginning of the film, on the technique of cross-cutting

When Lucy is dragged into Richard’s mess, and she faces the possibility of being executed by thugs, Besson cuts to a big cat -- a cheetah -- on a Savannah, hunting a frightened but alerted gazelle. These images are connected in terms of metaphor, and the cross-cutting from one scene to the other makes the point.  The gazelle and Lucy share the same feelings of terror and the same instincts of fight or flight when faced with an existential threat: a dangerous predator.

It would not be necessary to include this symbolic metaphor if all Besson intended here was to showcase Lucy’s fear.  Instead, the cross-cutting makes it plain that Lucy and the gazelle are one in the same; life possessed of the same feelings and the same fears; dwelling in the same universe where mortality is feared, and death is something to be avoided at all costs, and desperately if necessary.

The visuals in this case, clue us into the fact that the film concerns connections not only across the human world, but across other species as well. 

In terms of humans, it’s impossible not to notice the eclectic, rainbow make-up of the film’s dramatis personae. Lucy is a Caucasian female. Professor Samuel Norman is an African-American male. Pierre Del Rio is a Parisian cop. Mr. Jang is a Korean mobster.  They all become connected -- from Taipei to Berlin to Paris -- in one story, all playing their “part,” as it were.  So again, even the casting denotes a form of the film’s message, that every person, no matter their origin or ethnicity, is connected. Lucy is truly a global, or intercultural effort.

The subtext of connection goes deeper. It comes to include time. Lucy travels back in time to prehistory during her “ultimate trip,” and connects with another Lucy, the hominin, or human ancestor, who walked upright on Earth over three million years ago. 

The modern, evolving Lucy (Johannson), herald of the future, touches the fingertips of the primitive Lucy, symbol of the past or beginning, and the entirety of human history is connected. 

The same image also recalls Michelangelo’s fresco, The Creation of Adam, in the Sistine Chapel.  There, God breathes life into Adam by touch, by outstretched digit.  Lucy’s variation on this idea also involves the touching of digits. The idea is that our past breathes life into the future, and maybe, perhaps, our future even breathes life into our past. Therefore, all time periods are connected, and that there is, actually, no real past or future, only the connection that stretches between all forms of life

Certainly, the film’s imagery after that touch, of Lucy witnessing the Big Bang, and even the pre-Big Bang (when coruscating, living matter seems to be squeezed into our universe through a black hole…), suggests the idea that space and time are one, and that we, are, literally, stardust, matter that was present when the universe began.

The film’s final reckoning, that Lucy outgrows the need to be tethered to a particular corporeal form, or a particular moment in history, supports this reading of the film.  “I am everywhere,” she reports, and by that, I also assume she means that she is every-when, capable of interfacing with every corner of creation in every epoch of time…simultaneously.

To evolve, at least in this particular cinematic world, is not to become the star child, but -- by reaching the limits of biology and physiological potential -- to conquer physical death; and even the need to be contained or housed in a body. If all life goes back to the Big Bang, and all life is connected, then death is not real, is it?

We never really die,” Lucy suggests.

Take away all the high-minded metaphysics and all the spectacular special effects, and Lucy’s message is really simple and straight-forward: We live in a world in which we narrow our gaze, because to comprehend the immensity of it all would be…well, scary.We’ve codified our existence to bring it down to human size, to make it comprehensible. We’ve created a scale so we can forget its unfathomable scale,” she declares.

Indeed. Some of us forget that our lives are finite because we focus on a litany of day-to-day responsibilities and occupations. We have tunnel vision. We create a human scale so we don’t see the unfathomable scale, or the things that scare us.

Lucy itself performs the opposite task. 

It presents as a dazzling, fast-moving action film, and then progressively expands itself to reckon with human nature, the nature of the cosmos, and, finally, transcendentalism. It ends with an acknowledgment that we are all connected, if only we seek those connections and don’t limit the scale of our lives.   Lucy, who was one of us, “concentrating on so many things,” has been freed to see the things that matter, on a universal scale. 

We were given the gift life, and Lucy tells us that her example tells us “what to do with it.”

I love and admire films that ask me to stretch my vision and see things in a new or fresh way. Lucy succeeds in that task, and with guns blazing to boot.

1 comment:

  1. This is a really fantastic review, John. During the opening twenty minutes or so, I could feel the Saturday afternoon matinee attendees squirming in their seats over the collective strangeness of "Lucy". All of those interspersed shots of cheetahs pursuing gazelles with a drug deal wasn't exactly difficult to pick up on, but I could tell the people in the theater weren't expecting such an oddity. I'm not a movie snob, but I was having as good of a time seeing the reactions of the crowd as I was watching the movie.

    "Lucy" was always entertaining despite the fact that the whole premise of using on 10, 20, 50 or 100% of your brain is ridiculous. Scarlett Johansson was terrific (my crush grows), Amr Waked was a great sidekick and the car chase kicked my ass.

    This has many breathtaking visuals and some brutal violence but "Lucy" is strange in many wonderful ways. It's good to see that something a little different, something not a sequel or a comic book adaptation, did well at the box office.