It’s almost impossible to sit through Lucy without pondering what could have been. A ham-fisted fusion of high-concept science fiction and lowbrow action from writer-director Luc Besson, it fails in both categories. It does succeed at being a very, very dumb movie about being very, very smart – for whatever that’s worth.
Scarlett Johansson, slumming between Marvel sequels, stars in the title role, a grad-student in Taiwan who naively allows herself to be conned into delivering a briefcase to a local crimelord, Mr. Jang (Mon-Sik Choi, the original Oldboy). She winds up muling a fancy new designer drug that leaks into her system and super-charges her brain capacity to the extent that she develops extra-human abilities as her mind races to reaching its full potential.
Thus, the first act is intriguing, and the way in which Besson splices snippets Cosmos- and National Geographic-worthy stock footage into the early scenes as a cheeky and effective way to play with his own story and our expectations, as well as cross-cutting with a lecture by brain scientist Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman, rocking his usual dulcet tones that would make even a terminal diagnosis sound pleasant). Lucy has roughly 24 hours to obtain more of her drug to stabilize her condition, as well as sort out what it means to be a one-woman transhuman singularity.
Alas, Besson is not content to focus on the more nuanced aspects of his premise of his story for very long, opting instead to tack on a bland, aimless, and underdeveloped subplot involving Jang’s attempts to recover his drugs and get some bloody revenge. It’s a distracting and pointless side-trip that seems only to exist in order to set up a few gratuitous action scenes, and it causes the movie to run around in circles so much that its 89-minute running time feels much longer.
Which would be forgivable if the action beats were at least flashy enough to distract from the movie’s weaknesses. Besson has done little of impact in the past 15 years; the good news that he’s at the top of his game, but the bad news is that his game is stuck in the 1990s. Lucy’s shoot-outs, chases, and explosions feel rote, are half-heartedly staged, and are completely lacking the anarchic, creative mayhem that made La Femme Nikita, Leon (aka The Professional), and The Fifth Element so memorable.
Lucy could have been another Limitless, the surprise hit by Neil Burger that tread similar ground with more smarts and creativity. Instead it opts for Her with gunplay and car chases instead of romance, and a disheartening amount of lazy exposition. The sad irony is that Lucy requires you to turn off your brain while watching a movie about doing the exact opposite.