The film star as all-powerful, all-knowing, all-dazzling deity - now there's a metaphor for super-heroes if there ever was one, which makes it all but unavoidable for a bona fide film star to be the only possibility to play the title character of French "vulgar auteur" Luc Besson's latest attempt at marrying high art and lowbrow genre film. Lucy is a surreal, breathless speed-of-light sugar rush through a series of enticing but half-baked sci-fi concepts that seem to have barely been sketched before the director jetted off to Taiwan to shoot. In the process, Mr. Besson wastes an intriguing premise with legs and a confident, assured performance from Scarlett Johansson, adding another earring to her jewel box of varied, sensual roles.
Her Lucy is an American party girl enjoying her stay in Taipei until a one-week-stand boyfriend (Pilou Asbæk) forces on her a mysterious briefcase to deliver to a tony hotel. Hijacked against her will into being a courier for crime boss Jang (a woefully underused Choi Min-sik), Lucy accidentally absorbs a huge dose of the crystals into her blood stream; the compound literally storms open the "doors of perception", speeding up the normal evolution of the human brain a billionfold until she can use all of its powers and, in effect, becomes the first of a new species. The name is, of course, not accidental - Lucy is also the name of the Ethiopian fossil skeleton that became the most complete earliest human ancestor ever found.
Mr. Besson has always been more of a visceral, visual director than a narrative filmmaker, so you'd be forgiven for expecting Lucy to reach a destination, but while he has here decided to go back into the toy box of eye-popping visuals that made him famous in the 1980s, you end up coming out of the film with a slight nausea from too much (eye) candy - it's merely a journey pretty much to nowhere. In the process of becoming a new kind of human being, Lucy has to face off Jang's ruthless henchmen, cueing up a series of spectacularly mindless and often shockingly brutal action setpieces that exist solely as manifestations of the director's visual stylings, obfuscating the lofty ideas that the script espouses.
In effect, Lucy is a take on 2001 under the guise of a live-action super-hero comic-book, grandiose in its intellectual scope, kick-ass in its visual approach. The idea of your average party girl becoming, in many ways, omniscient and all-powerful works wonderfully as metaphor for the transcendental power of film (let's not forget that Mr. Besson's favourite go-to heroines are strong female leads, from Anne Parillaud's Nikita to Milla Jovovich's Leeloo in The Fifth Element or Marie Bourgoin's Adèle Blanc-Sec).
But, as always, the director prefers to use story as scaffold instead of throughline; despite a couple of truly moving moments as Lucy realises what fate has in store of her, despite the admiration you may feel for Mr. Besson attempting to deal with serious concepts and philosophical meditations in the framework of a big-budget action film, it all collapses in the director's sensory, indigestive overload of visual tricks, under the weight of long-term accomplice Éric Serra's pompous, overbearing, entirely inappropriate score. It's the work of a clearly talented visual storyteller director having fun with his toy box for the greater glory of an actress at her peak, but it's the cinematic equivalent of fast food: comforting while it lasts, but ultimately unfulfilling.
Cast Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Choi Min-sik, Amr Waked, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Pilou Asbæk, Analeigh Tipton
Director and screenwriter Luc Besson; cinematographer Thierry Arbogast (colour, widescreen); composer Éric Serra; designer Hugues Tissandier; costumes Olivier Beriot; editor Julien Rey; effects supervisor Nicholas Brooks; producer Virginie Besson-Silla; production company Europacorp in co-production with TF1 Films Production and Grive Productions, with the participation of Canal Plus, Ciné Plus and TF1
Screened August 6th 2014, Piazza Grande, Locarno (Locarno Film Festival opening ceremony)