That Lucy Movie: Badass or Just Dumbass?

By Brantley Thompson Elkins


I wasn't eager to see Luc Besson’s latest movie Lucy, although it had gotten some good reviews and stars Scarlett Johansson, who I liked as Black Widow in Iron Man 2 – like an Emma Peel for a new generation. And when I did see it, the movie lived down to my expectations, based on what I'd read about it.


Most superhero movies these days seem to be all about pointless explosions and idiot plots. There haven’t been that many superheroine movies, and those few have been misfires like My Super Ex-Girlfriend (2006). The 2011 Wonder Woman TV pilot was pretty lame, and as of this writing a new movie version reportedly to star Gil Gadot still seems to be up in the air.


Besson may still be best known for La Femme Nikita (1990), which inspired a Hollywood remake, and even a TV series; and The Fifth Element (1997). The first is about a teen criminal (Anne Parillaud) who kills a cop and is given a choice between execution or becoming a government assassin. The second stars Milla Jovovich as an artificial human created to fight an alien Great Evil that threatens humanity. Both had a lot of verve, and both had nonsensical elements -- like Victor the Cleaner in La Femme Nikita, whose job is to dissolve the bodies of enemy agents with insufficient acid; and the magical stones required to defeat the Great Evil in The Fifth Element. But you could take the nonsense with a grain of salt for the sake of the action and romance and (for some of us) strong female characters.


Only, Besson seems to have become Deadly Serious in his latest venture, according to an interview by Jason Guerrasio in Rolling Stone:


What Guerrasio calls Besson’s “off-the-wall idea to explore our brain's capacity — and eventually, life, the universe and everything” strikes me as unintentionally reminiscent of Jack Handley’s comic “Deep Thoughts” (“If trees could scream, would we be so cavalier about cutting them down? We might, if they screamed all the time, for no good reason.”) on Saturday Night Live thirty years ago.


But this isn’t the first time a good director has gone off the rails. Ridley Scott, whose Blade Runner (1982) remains one of the classics of science fiction film and whose Alien (1979) launched a movie franchise, got Deadly Serious in Prometheus (2012), which turned the Alien mythology into a pretentious parable about the origin and meaning of humanity, while lapsing into the clichés of horror movie idiot plots and previous Alien episodes. Two of the characters wander off and get lost in an alien structure; the rest of the crew doesn’t seem to care. An android infects one of them with DNA from an apparently extinct species that is inexplicably an exact match for human DNA; he then has sex with a previously sterile woman who somehow becomes pregnant with a squid-like creature. Etc., etc.


Some bad movies are just incompetently written and/or produced. Others are bad because they are based on stupid ideas to begin with. Prometheus is one example, and Lucy seems to be another. Simon Spiegel, a professor of cinema studies at the University of Zurich, had this to say on the Listserv of the Science Fiction Research Association:


I’ve just seen it and calling it pretentious is an insult to all pretentious movies. It’s mind-boggingly dumb esoteric kitsch. The stuff it tells about evolution is simply rubbish (“cells are handing down knowledge from generation to generation” – no, they’re not!). The beginning, when it’s just an action movie, is quite cool, but as soon as the “philosophical stuff” (again: an insult to all philosophers) kicks in, it gets worse and worse.”


One Devin Faraci went further in a review (“Using 0% of Your Brain”) for a site called Badass:


Some highlights of Faraci’s takedown:


The film’s central premise is based on that canard which says we only use about 10-15% of our brains, but I don’t mind that. Radioactive spider bites don’t turn people into superheroes either -- I’m willing to suspend my disbelief that a new designer drug expands Lucy’s brain ability, especially if it leads to fun. Lucy’s problem is that once your disbelief is suspended it gets straight up abused; as more and more of her brain is available Lucy just starts learning stuff out of thin air, suddenly becoming an expert in quantum physics and applied math, and then she can see through walls and impact radio waves halfway across the globe. None of it makes any sense within the context of the movie’s own rules, and none of it feels like an escalation. Her abilities are so vague and so godlike when she’s at 20% that I’m not even sure what’s different at 90%.




As the movie gets into the home stretch it decides to be profound, and Lucy’s expanding brain takes her deep into the universe. All of a sudden we’re traveling to the beginning of time and learning the secrets of reality… while Korean gangsters and French police have a tedious shoot out in the hallway. If you think Besson named his protagonist randomly you’re wrong -- he is very much explicitly referencing Lucy the hominid skeleton, although the movie makes the rather striking (and incorrect) claim that Lucy was the first human being.


Has Besson seen Prometheus? Maybe he’d think that was profound too. Maybe he’d think the same of the second version of TV’s Battlestar Galactica (2003-9) in which the humans fleeing the Cylons and seeking a lost colony called Earth find instead the world of our prehistoric ancestors and interbreed with them -- but get rid of all their technology in order to spare us the fate of the “original” Earth that was destroyed in a nuclear war. Among other things, it also develops that Earthly monotheistic religions were inspired by that of dissident Cylons who joined the fleet. Some 150,000 years later, in our cybernetic age, an immortal Cylon and his immortal human comrade reflect: “All of this has happened before.” “But the question remains, does all of this have to happen again?" Deep stuff!


As Faraci observes, we can accept gimmicks in superhero/superheroine stories as long as the stories themselves have substance. We can even make fun of the gimmicks – I once kidded friends about an alternate universe Spider-Man comic in which Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive trap door spider – which would cause him to pop up from manholes instead of swinging from webs he spun. But the best Spider-Man movies have focused on the theme of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s Marvel Comics series: With great power comes great responsibility.”


Those with the power to make movies also bear great responsibility.