In light of all the comic book properties getting a big screen treatment of late, it’s nice to see a blockbuster tackle the notion of an everywoman gaining super-powers without resorting to the usual “costumed titan” tropes. Written and directed by Luc Besson, Lucy isn’t so much a super-hero flick as a philosophical digression in cinematic form. Consider the way it favours personal transformation over high-octane altruism, self-exploration over self-aggrandisement, and an intricate discourse on life, purpose, and the existential implications of our evolutionary process over good guys punching the crap out of bad guys.
Mind you, the film starts off like any super-hero yarn. Scarlett Johansson stars as the titular Lucy, a loveable loser who finds herself at the mercy of Korean mobsters in Taiwan by way of possibly the worst boyfriend in the world (Pilou Asbaek). Led by the eerily nonchalant Mr Jang (Min-sik Choi), the criminals use our heroine as a drug mule for an experimental substance called “synthetic CPH4”, but the package bursts in transit, granting the young woman access to untapped portions of her brain, namely those that control memory, telecommunication frequencies, and eventually time-space itself. Sounds simple enough, right?
Straight away, though, Besson sets the offbeat tone of Lucy with random cutaways of a cheetah hunting down a gazelle, as if to link our heroine’s misadventures to a natural cycle wherein the ruthless prey on the weak. Even after Lucy powers up and turns the tables on her predators, the narrative is punctuated by Professor Norman’s (Morgan Freeman) lecture on the evolution of the human mind. As a result, we find ourselves more concerned with the anthropological ramifications of her metamorphosis than the mechanics of her abilities.
Lucy can do whatever the plot requires, period. In fact, her cat-and-mouse sequences with Yang’s henchman generate little suspense, serving as a mere pretext to display the extent of her psychic mutation and eventual detachment from petty human conflicts. You see, Lucy largely plays like an anti super-hero blockbuster, subverting every aspect of egocentric wish-fulfilment inherent to the genre with a healthy dose of existential humility. After all, crime fighting seems kind of a waste when you have it in you to unlock the secrets of the cosmos and, in so doing, elevate mankind as a whole.
Besson illustrates this point beautifully when Lucy asks Norman what she should do in the twelve hours before her corporeal being slips away. “I suppose the purpose of any life form, “ the old scholar muses, “is to pass along whatever it’s learnt.” This sets up a riveting climax in which our heroine outlines for a small group of scientists the inherent flaw in human reasoning. Indeed, the third act of Lucy kept me on the edge of my seat with just a bunch of talking heads. I think there was a shootout of some kind too and maybe a car chase, but I was too busy entertaining far-off notions of a non-numerical quantification to notice.
Here’s a taste to help determine whether you’ll appreciate Lucy as much as I did: our heroine explains that we only believe one and one make two because we’ve anthropomorphised logic itself. The concept of plurality allows us to acknowledge others without letting go of the sense of self that informs our every thought. However, in nature, one cell and another do not make two cells; they make a more complex organism the same way two circuits make a network, two persons make a people, and two ideas make a culture. This leads Lucy to conclude that the only pertinent unit of measurement is… Well, that’d be a spoiler, wouldn’t it?
Against all expectations, Besson’s film has taken the number one spot at the box office, prompting critics across the four corners of the Web to pontificate about wheeling out more female-driven super-hero properties. In light of women making up over half the population but only a tenth of Marvel’s current cinematic pantheon, it would indeed seem a step in the right direction. However, it would behoove Hollywood to consider the possibility that comic book blockbusters have exhausted the topic of individual exceptionalism. Perhaps Lucy owes its success to our hunger for grander, more complex thoughts.