"Lucy" is the kind of movie that should be just terrible. It starts with an erroneous premise--that humans only use 10 percent of their brains--and runs with it like a hyperactive child with the biggest, sharpest pair of scissors in the drawer. Usually a recipe for disaster. Fortunately, for us, that hyperactive child is Luc Besson.
Besson ("The Fifth Element", "La Femme Nikita", "Léon") is an exciting director whose reach often exceeds his grasp but who seems more afraid of not trying hard enough than of failing. He has style. Even his missteps inspire admiration of his audacity. If Michael Bay is the Kenny G. of crazy excess in directing, Besson is Miles Davis.
In "Lucy" Scarlett Johansson plays the title character, a foreign student in Taiwan. She is an inveterate party girl and gets mixed up with the wrong people. This leads to her being forced to act as a drug mule for a murderous Korean gangster, Mr. Jang (Min-sik Choi). The drug is a synthetic version of a substance pregnant woman produce in small quantities and which is essential to the development of their babies. What possible value it could have as a street drug, don't ask. Just accept that that's what is happening and go from there. An accident with the drug doses Lucy with a huge amount, giving her the capacity to use more and more of her brain.
The myth that humans only use about 10 percent of their brains is patently false. Besson even acknowledged that this is not true but thought it made a good "what if". If we start with the idea that it is true, then what happens if someone breaks through that barrier and progresses toward using 100 percent of her brain? To sell us on this false premise and the idea that gaining mastery of more of the brain would grant Lucy incredible powers, Besson wisely chose to employ Morgan Freeman. As Professor Samuel Norman, a leading expert in brain function, Freeman explains all of the science of the Lucy-verse, where all of this is true. As always, he does it with great authority and geniality.
As Lucy, Johansson is engaging, performing a credible transition from flighty good-time girl to something beyond our understanding. As she grows beyond our capability and understanding, she loses what we would consider her obvious signs of humanity, seeming cold and emotionless. In the hands of a less talented writer/director than Besson, that would be all we get, but that is merely the surface. Lucy seeks out Professor Norman and, with Jang and his henchmen in blood-soaked pursuit of her, struggles to meet with him and complete her transformation.
While there is a substantial amount of action and gunplay, Lucy, at its heart is about more than that. It is a rumination on the meaning of life and our place in the Universe. What is reality? What is our purpose? With limited perception and comprehension, are we even capable of asking the questions? The Matrix films tried to deal with these questions with a mix of methamphetamine-fueled action and stoner philosophy, but "Lucy" has evolved beyond that bloated trilogy. It doesn't matter if "Lucy" is real. What matters is that it is True.
The film is visually exciting and great fun to watch, as one would expect from Besson. Also, as one would expect, not everything seems to come together. Some of what are obviously supposed to be emotional moments don't quite work, lacking the depth Besson achieved with"Léon." There are lulls in places where we might expect action and action where we might expect more quiet. As such, I can't bring myself to give this film a four-star rating (and I don't do half-stars), so I reluctantly give it a three. However, I will definitely be watching it again as it is highly-entertaining and unexpectedly thoughtful.