CINEMA: In The Sky With Diamonds

LUCY (2014, directed by Luc Besson, 89 minutes, France/U.S.)

BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC After Snowpiercer, here comes another foreign filmmaker showing us how to do big action right. Lucy is the latest from producer/director Luc Besson and the sci-fi actioner is a welcome return to the sort of flashy fantasy cinema he created in films like La Femme Nikita and Leon: The Professional. At a fleet 89 minutes, Lucy discards franchise-building, city-leveling and unnecessary exposition, instead following the fetching figure of Lucy (movie star Scarlett Johansson) as her brainpower begins surging to unimagined heights .

Who is Lucy? We don’t know much. From appearances she is a young woman sewing her club-going oats while studying in Taipei, Taiwan. She’s been hanging with some shady dude for a week when he suddenly asks her to drop off a briefcase at the front desk of a high-rise. When she balks he handcuffs the briefcase to her wrist and sends her in. Suddenly people are getting shot, Lucy is dragged off and after some quick surgery she and three others are transporting packets of weird blue crystals sewn into their bellies. After getting punched in the gut by her handlers, Lucy’s bag begins leaking inside her, making her brainpower expand to wholly new frontiers.

It says something about the powerful essence of stardom that this is the second film in six months that has built a premise around watching the otherwordly Scarlett Johansson stride across the screen (the other being the even trippier Under the Skin) Even with all the gossip spotlight Johansson has hogged over the last decade she maintains the requisite mystique required to hold the screen while doing almost nothing. As an actress, her low voice and flat affect have given her a somewhat narrow range but this works to her advantage with the character of Lucy. As Lucy’s brain surges with power, she describes all the elements of personality melting away. Desire, sentiment, even being present in a single moment, all slip away as Lucy begins to understand and control every detail of the world around her. As for romance, at one point Lucy unexpectedly gives an emotionless kiss to her cop partner. Why? “Just a reminder” is her passionless explanation.

Lucy keeps pushing forward but somewhere along the way the film changes gears away from being a typical action film. Although the showdown with drug dealer Mr. Jang (Min-Sik Choi, star of the modern action classic Oldboy) is forever getting closer, the suspense is focused on what is going to happen when Lucy’s brain achieves 100% functionality. Lucy finally teams with brain expert Professor Norman (played by beacon-of-humanity Morgan Freeman) as her noodle begins to transcend the boundaries of space and time.

There’s a lot here for party-poopers to sniff at, the brain science is totally bogus (it’s a myth that we use 10% of our brain) and Lucy is pretty much invulnerable by the film’s halfway point but it seems like you’d have to have be immune to pleasure in order to resist Besson’s masterful cinematic vigor. Right from the beginning, the director sees beyond the frame with omniscient clarity, inter-cutting the luring of Lucy that started the whole mess with a cheetah carefully stalking his prey. As Lucy begins feeling an increased connection with the world around her, Besson is not afraid to dissolve the visuals into trippy tracking shots and melting montages, recalling head trips from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey as well as Gasper Noe’s more recent death-trip, Enter the Void. The hippie/druggy underpinnings of “feeling connected to everything” might not sit easily with every square in the audience but “knowing all” is a novel climactic note in a blockbuster sci-fi world when “destroying all” often stands in for revelation. Although ultimate knowledge is dangled about at the film’s finale. Lucy never lets the entertainment wane while lingering on or underlining any pomposities. Instead, Besson’s Lucy does what the best summer blockbusters do: take a novel idea, explore it with action and wit and then propel us back into the heat, slightly disoriented and pleased.