Lucy: The Dumbest Movie Ever Made About Brain Capacity

An extended spoilereview of Luc Besson's worst film to date
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As the brain capacity of Scarlett Johansson's character Lucy rises, all semblance of logic plummets. (Universal Pictures)

Every now and then a movie comes along that’s so beyond-the-pale sloppy, so disastrous in both conceit and execution, that it simply defies conventional analysis. It happened with The Happening. There was something unspeakably wrong with The Words. And Broken City was utterly beyond repair.

So, too, with Lucy, writer/director/producer Luc Besson’s mind-bendingly miscalculated sci-fi vehicle for Scarlett Johansson. In its defense, I can offer only that Johansson is a moderately charismatic presence (despite playing a character who barely qualifies as a character) and that the film clocks in at a mercifully brief 89 minutes. That said, the sheer quantity of inanity that Besson squeezes into his limited screen time beggars that of awful movies of substantially greater length.

Consequently, what follows is not a review but a spoilereview. If you are genuinely considering watching Lucy—and I urgently recommend that you reconsider—you should stop reading now. If, by contrast, you plan to give the movie a pass and would like to have your good judgment ratified (or, alternatively, if you have stumbled out of the theater bewildered and seeking commiseration), read on. Because while Besson has made very, very bad films in the past—most recently, last year’s The Family—this is the first time he has made a film so idiotic that the only way to properly convey its flaws is to enumerate them.

1. The movie’s first image is of a single cell, shimmying in the light; then, in huge letters “Scarlett Johansson”; then, the cell dividing via mitosis into two identical duplicates, and then four. This is what is referred to in Hollywood as “wishful thinking.”

2. We watch as an early hominid, Australopithecus, drinks water from a stream a few million years ago. In voiceover, Johansson asks us, “Life was given to us a billion years ago. What have we done with it?” Flash forward to a montage of modern metropolises buzzing away, full of cars and buses and skyscrapers and clothed people engaging in spoken language. Was Johansson’s question rhetorical? Because it actually seems as though we’ve accomplished quite a lot since we were naked and furry, drinking water from streams.

3. Ah, but now we’re in Taipei, and we get the point. A moderately unkempt Johansson—her character’s name is “Lucy,” and she is a student, though the latter fact is entirely irrelevant—is talking to a chump in a beard and foolish sunglasses outside a fancy office building. This is what she meant about our having wasted a billion years of life on Earth: However much we may have evolved otherwise, some of us—even some who look like Scarlett Johansson—still date jerks as self-evident as this one. This regrettable beau (they’ve been together a week) confirms the lesson by telling Lucy, against all available evidence, that he’s recently visited a museum. There, he made the discovery that “The first woman was named Lucy.” Yes, that was the Australopithecus we saw by the stream. Yes, this is the kind of movie we are in for.

4. Now it’s time for some plot, though I’m being generous with the term: Lucy’s semi-boyfriend is acting as a courier, transporting a small silver briefcase to someone in the office building. But he’s had trouble with building security in the past, so he asks her to take it in for him—he assures her it’s “only paperwork”—and to deliver it to a “Mr. Jang.” When she declines, he handcuffs her to the case, claiming that only Jang has the combination. So Lucy reluctantly goes into the building, asks for Jang, and is whisked upstairs by goons. The boyfriend is immediately executed, which can only be regarded as a relief all around.

5. Intercut with the previous scene is footage of a cheetah stalking, and ultimately downing, an antelope on the Serengeti. (Besson was evidently among the very few fans of Ridley Scott’s The Counselor.) It’s a metaphor, you see, for the bad guys who are closing in on helpless Lucy. In a little while, we’ll be treated a few more nature reels, though these will be used in a more literal fashion. After that, the movie will abandon the gimmick altogether. Rarely does one have the acute, real-time experience of watching a film recognize that one of its principal stylistic flourishes is so lame that it must be summarily discarded.

6. But back to Lucy. Upstairs she meets Jang, who is the kind of businessman who brutally murders people while wearing a $10,000 suit, and then rinses the gore off his hands with Evian. (He’s played by South Korean actor Choi Min-sik, of Oldboy fame.) Jang speaks no English, nor do any of the many flunkies attending him, which seems odd for a big-time Taipei businessman. So he calls an interpreter on the phone in order to communicate with Lucy. He then has her open the case, which contains a crystalline blue powder. His goons wheel in a junkie to test the stuff. After one snort, the junkie starts giggling wildly and they shoot him. Then Jang offers Lucy a “job,” she says no, and one of the goons punches her in the face.

7. It’s around this time that we’re introduced to our secondary star, Morgan Freeman, brought in with the obvious (though wildly unsuccessful) mission of lending scientific and philosophical gravitas to the proceedings. Freeman plays a renowned neuroscientist, “Professor Norman” (no first name necessary), who is delivering a lecture to a packed crowd of well-heeled attendees. He explains that most species use only 3-5 percent of their “cerebral capacity,” that human beings use 10 percent—a complete falsehood, incidentally—and that dolphins use 20 percent. (So long, and thanks for all the fish!) He goes so far as to suggest that if we used more of our own brainpower, we’d be able to echolocate too, though he’s mum on the question of whether this would require us to wander around clicking all the time.

8. In addition to offering a variety of silly, daily-calendar-level bromides, Professor Norman makes the point that, when endangered, species focus on self-preservation, but when circumstances are safe, they focus on reproduction. This is an excuse for the second (and last) phase of the wildlife footage, in which we have an opportunity to watch a variety of creatures (rhinoceroses, tropical frogs) humping. I have no doubt that there is a fetish community devoted to such fare, but I suspect it requires a more rarefied taste than that of the average summer moviegoer.

9. Back to Lucy. When she awakes from her punch to the face, she’s taken to a fancy high-rise office suite, offered a drink in a cut-crystal glass, and told she’s had a minor surgery to implant a packet of that blue-powdery drug, called CPH4, in her abdomen. She and a trio of other mules are to smuggle the drugs back to their home countries, where they’ll be retrieved by Jang’s men.

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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