2014 • 89 minutes • Universal Pictures
For me, there is such a thing as an impenetrable director. Simply put, I find some directors utterly bulletproof. I can’t find any openings to begin engaging with their work, be it positively, negatively, or complexly. (This is similar to the kind of close-endedness in a text that discourages fandom, but you can still talk about those films. See Cabin in the Woods, a thesis statement cunningly disguised as a film.) Their work is just too weirdly pure—their strange conception is perfectly executed, and I can’t find fault in that.
(There could also be such things as impenetrable writers and musicians, but I’ve never met such an author and music criticism is largely beyond me.)
Obviously, the racial politics of Luc Besson’s Lucy are something to find fault in. It’s not so much that the villainous drug lord pursuing Lucy is Taiwanese and Lucy herself is the white Scarlett Johansson; it’s that the film apparently has never considered the racial politics of both that situation and human trafficking in general. It’s that the film decides the best way to show Lucy’s sudden capability and lack of humanity after overdosing on the drug is by shooting a man whose only “fault” is that he can’t speak English. (Later, her roommate scoffs at someone who knows Chinese. They live in Taipei.) It’s less that the film is overtly racist and more that the film just didn’t care—which is more insidious, because that’s exactly how it gets out into the culture.
But other than that, Luc Besson proves just as inscrutable to me as Bahz Luhrmann is. Why include cuts to stock footage to underscore emotional beats? Because he can. (To be fair, I’m also a little dazzled by the fact that film is, as a medium, ultimately all about juxtaposition of shots in time, so it kind of appealed to me.) Why create “an action film with a purpose” meant to make us question every value we’ve ever held that runs a breakneck eighty-nine minutes? Because he can. Why try to make a philosophical science fiction film with the completely bosh urban legend that we only use ten percent of our brains at the center? Because he can.
And he can do it well. (That’s the impenetrable part of these directors for me—they accomplish their goals so efficiently that I can’t fault their goals unless they’re actively or passively offensive.) This is my first experience with Besson as a director, and I’m impressed enough to want to investigate The Fifth Element as soon as possible. The action is breakneck—I felt like I’d barely sat down when the film concluded—and the story economical. Besson’s strange philosophy is explored with beautiful, bizarre visuals, from the practical effects of Lucy’s transformation to her last and strangest form when she hits one hundred percent. (Title cards reminding us what percentage she’s at are used to ratchet up the tension.)
But the film largely rests on Scarlett Johansson, who is currently enjoying a banner year for her career with Captain America 3, Her, and Under the Skin. After seeing the fantastic Under the Skin (which I did not review because I watched it while coming off a bad anxiety attack, which is definitely not how you should watch surreal art house sci-fi flicks), I was sure that Lucy and the unnamed protagonist of Under the Skin would be similar performances. Miraculously, they’re worlds apart. Lucy is a nice, if airheaded, young woman who quickly loses grasp on her humanity in a strange, confident way. As Lucy tells the people she meets (and stabs) about what she knows now, she’s matter of fact and slightly reverent. She makes a phone call as she loses her grip on humanity, while being operated on, and it’s stunningly efficient. The film occasionally uses her distance for humorous intent—when a French cop points out that she’s killing people during a car chase, she simply states that “We never really die”—but is largely more interested in Lucy making sense of the world around her, now that she sees through all the illusions.
Those illusions are largely the manmade concepts that organize our lives so we don’t run screaming off into the mental wilderness, but it’s always worth poking those in the eye every once in a while. Especially in such bizarre style. Lucy’s triumph over Hercules at the box office its opening weekend proves that there’s an audience for female-led action films, no matter how odd they are. So here’s to having a ton more.
Without the racism.
I saw this film in theaters.