Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Lucy

Three things you will probably have heard by now about Lucy, Luc Besson's latest film and his first foray back into proper, no-holds-barred science fiction since The Fifth Element.  One, that the film's success demonstrates the viability of a female-led action/SF movie, and cements Scarlett Johansson's position as the reigning queen of filmed SF (or at the very least co-reigning queen, along with Zoe Saldana).  Two, that its handling of race, and particularly of its Asian characters, whom it depicts almost uniformly as violent drug dealers who menace and threaten to rape its innocent white heroine, is irredeemable.  And three, that it unwisely nails its colors to the mast of the "humans only use 10% of their brains" meme, despite the fact that no one buys into it any more and that most SF fans would find it an extremely annoying strain on their suspension of disbelief.  These things are all true and worth talking about, but what I find interesting about Lucy--which is not, I hasten to point out, a good film in any sense of the word, but which depending on your personal tolerance for that sort of thing might be called entertainingly weird--is how its effective and extremely misleading marketing campaign leads you to expect something very different than the film actually delivers.  Most people, I imagine, will go into Lucy expecting a superhero film, when in fact it is quite the opposite--an anti-superhero movie.

An American student in Taiwan, Lucy (Johansson) is coerced by her shifty boyfriend into delivering a locked case to his employer, Mr. Jang (Min-sik Choi, who manages to convey an amusing, low-key sense of menace despite speaking solely in untranslated Korean).  Things quickly go south, and Lucy finds herself dragooned into couriering a packet of a new designer drug, PCH4, which has been sewn into her stomach.  Instead of being ferried to the airport, however, Lucy finds herself in the hands of another group of thugs (it's never made clear what happened here, though we can assume that one of Jang's cronies double-crossed him) who attack her when she resists their pawing advances, rupturing the drug packet.  The resulting overdose inadvertently proves the theories of Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman) that if humans could learn to use more of their brains, we would gain control over our bodies, over the bodies of other people, and finally over matter itself.  The rest of the film is broken up by title screens announcing that Lucy is has now reached 20% brain capacity, 50%, etc., as her abilities develop according to Norman's timeline and she draws closer to the elusive 100%. (Though much has been made of the annoyance of a movie so dedicated to this canard, the unscientific moment that I found truly frustrating was a scene in which Norman is questioned about his predictions of what each usage level would enable, admits that they are only a theory, and then compares them to the theory of evolution, ignoring the fact that Newton Darwin was theorizing based on observed data, whereas his theory is mere guesswork.)

In the scenes immediately following the overdose, the film seems to be following the familiar template of a superhero story, in which an experience that should be horrifically traumatic or even fatal instead imbues our hero or heroine with special powers and allows them to take control of their world.  Lucy wastes little time in dispatching her captors and freeing herself, and quickly makes plans to remove the leaking drug packet from her body and figure out what has happened to her.  But what almost immediately becomes clear is that if Lucy is a superhero, it is along the lines of Watchmen's Doctor Manhattan.  Unlocking the unused parts of her brain has made Lucy so much bigger than ordinary people that she has become essentially inhuman, and perhaps monstrous.  Much has been made of a scene in which Lucy cavalierly but non-fatally shoots an innocent Taiwanese taxi driver because he doesn't speak English and can't take her where she wants to go, but there's been surprisingly little discussion of a scene immediately following, in which Lucy forces her way into a hospital operating room and kills the patient on the table (because she's glanced at his tests and concluded that he was going to die anyway) so that the doctors can operate on her.  (If you really want to, you can use scenes like this to try to justify the film's racism by claiming that it is Lucy who is indifferent to these deaths, not the movie.  This, however, is clearly not Besson's intention, and anyway does not explain why the film's villains are exclusively Asian, or why even post-overdose Lucy is able to relate to white, American women like her mother, or the roommate whom she diagnoses with kidney failure and gives medical advice to.)

Watching the film, I was surprised to recall reviews of it in which the pre-overdose Lucy is referred to as an unintelligent party girl.  In fact, Lucy is a painfully ordinary but hardly reckless or stupid person.  She seems to be someone who is enjoying the party life while abroad but who also recognizes its limits.  In the opening scene, she's seen explaining to her boyfriend that she has to go home and study, and never even considers delivering the case for him until he forces her to do it by handcuffing it to her wrist.  Her reactions to falling into the clutches of dangerous criminals are disarmingly human and believable, with just a enough of a hint of courage to make us root for her to triumph.  When she's being driven to what she thinks is the airport, we get to hear Lucy's internal monologue, as she tries to reassure herself that she is still alive and might yet survive this ordeal.  That person--the very human, flawed young girl who made some bad judgment calls but ultimately was just in the wrong place at the wrong time--disappears after the overdose, and the film seems to be arguing that far from being transformed into a heroine, she has effectively died.  Johansson's flat, emotionless affect after the overdose seems designed to convey that Lucy is a completely different person who is quickly losing touch with who she used to be.  In the film's most affecting scene, she calls her mother from the hospital as the drug packet is removed, and while there are hints in their conversation of the girl Lucy used to be, they are filtered through her growing strangeness--she explains that she can remember her whole life, including suckling from her mother as a baby--and it's clear that she is calling to say goodbye, while she still has enough human left in her to be able to relate to her parents.

The rest of the film seems, deliberately or not (and I confess that I lean towards the "not" reading) to be trying to disassemble some of the tropes of the superhero origin story.  Every moment that we might expect to be triumphant and badass is instead realigned to highlight Lucy's growing strangeness and inhumanity.  When she returns to Jang's hotel room from a position of strength, it's not to wreak righteous vengeance, but because she wants information about where the other couriers carrying PCH4 have been sent.  She seems largely indifferent to the suffering she causes Jang, musing that she now realizes that the things that made her who she was were in fact "obstacles" to achieving her true potential.  A car chase scene in Paris might have been expected to be fun and pulse-pounding, but instead it continues the film's theme of depicting Lucy as indifferent to collateral damage, and when the policeman accompanying her (Amr Waked, whose character is positioned as Lucy's tether to humanity but is so underserved by the script that he ends up feeling like an afterthought) warns that she's going to get both of them killed, Lucy merely intones that "we never really die."  Perhaps the most egregious example of how indifferent Lucy--and perhaps also the film--is to the conventions of the action movie is a scene in which she squares off against dozens of Jang's henchmen, and instead of fighting them simply causes them to float to the ceiling, walking past them as if they weren't even there.

The problem with all this--and the reason that Lucy ends up as more an interesting failure than a watchable film--is that it isn't a story.  Besson has an interesting premise, and an actress who can carry it (it's interesting to note how much of Johansson's bid for major Hollywood stardom in the last year has depended on playing in- or post-human women, and how successful that tactic has been), but he doesn't have a plot.  Though the film makes much of Lucy's progression towards using 100% of her brain, the fact remains that from the moment she hits 20%, she's effectively unstoppable, so that none of the film's action movie tropes have real resonance.  And though, as I've said, it's interesting that the film undermines so many tropes of superhero movies, its ideas of what to replace them with are limited and not very compelling.  Lucy manages to skate past the common Hollywood pitfall of depicting the super-intelligent as unemotional and lacking in sympathy--her disconnect from humanity comes not from accelerated intelligence but from her massively broadened perspective, and she's clearly still affected by the realization that the drugs in her system will inevitably kill her, and by the question of how to leave something behind that will allow humanity to learn from her experiences.  But in trying to depict what it means to be posthuman, Besson falls back on clichés--from the cutaways to nature documentaries that parallel Lucy's situation in the early parts of the film, to scenes late in the story in which she travels in time, meeting dinosaurs and early hominids.  Even worse is the cod-philosophy that Lucy spouts as she tries to explain her new worldview.  While obviously Besson couldn't have been expected to truly articulate what it's like to be posthuman, the fact that he tries, in lieu of delivering an actual story, is a major flaw in the film--as is the fact that he keeps Jang, and his plot to kill Lucy, around long past the point where he ceases to be an actual threat.  Lucy is short enough (89 minutes) that its forays into weirdness as it attempts to articulate how big Lucy has become don't have time to outstay their welcome, but the film's ending still comes as a bit of a relief.

Much like Johansson's earlier Her, Lucy is interesting less for its story and characters and more for the world it suggests but has no interest in exploring--a world in which posthumanism has been unlocked, in which anyone can take a drug that gives them superhuman powers while robbing them of their humanity, and in which people who have unlocked their full potential effectively become gods who can now interfere with ordinary human life in whatever way they like.  It's a shame that Besson can come close to recognizing the true implications of his story only to fall back on action movie clichés and meaningless philosophical ramblings (and an even greater shame that he was unable to tell his story without resorting to easily avoidable racism).  Still, while I can't exactly recommend Lucy--your enjoyment of it will largely depend on your tolerance for pointless weirdness, and on how much you feel that Scarlett Johansson playing a woman with superpowers compensates for that weirdness--I am glad that it was made.  If only as a reminder of how ideas about SF and posthumanism, no matter how simplified and unscientific, are percolating into popular culture, and as a promise that perhaps, some day, someone will make an SF film worth of those ideas, and of Johansson's talents.

14 comments:

Adam Roberts said...

Is it the film that attributes 'the theory of evolution' to Newton? Or a slip in your review? Given the tenor of your comments here I wouldn't be surprised if it's the former.

Paul Weimer said...

I did think of "what now" once the movie ended--are there going to be more apotheoses, now that the secret is known? What does that mean?

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Adam: Arrgh, no, that was me. And I only read the review a dozen times before hitting "post."

Paul: The film does end with Lucy using up the entire supply of the drug in order to reach 100% brain capacity. But Julian Rhind-Tutt is still around so presumably he can make more, and what one person can discover another one can too. You do get the sense that Besson doesn't realize where his story takes the film's world. Lucy's closing voiceover seems to suggest that it's her revelations about existence that will change the world, when really it's the existence of the drug and near-certainty that other people will use it that will probably have the most effect.

asakiyume said...

The trailer, which revealed pretty much the entire plot, including the beyond-humanity aspect that you mention, also revealed the time-traveling, space-and-time-and-thought-are-all-one element. This seems to me to be a deal-breakingly stupid amount of power, worse than Superman. If your character *is* an invulnerable god, what then? Never mind the in-story ridiculousness of ordinary scientists and crooks developing this drug. What happens if more than one person becomes omnipotent? (What happens when you have more than one all-powerful being in the universe?) You could make a film in which a person becomes non-human and powerful, without *breaking* it by making the person so insanely powerful. That way, you could explore the transition into non-humanity and its meaning and consequences, without the distraction of ultimate power.

Jun Zhang said...

What annoyed me was:
1. Haven't Scarlett Johansson and Morgan Freeman been in enough post-/trans-humanist movies already? (read RoboCop, Transcendence, Under the Skin) I feel like Freeman's casting was solely to lend the credibility in his documentary-narrating voice to cuckoo premises.
2. Did anyone notice that the hotel concierge spoke to Mr Jang in mandarin? But for the whole movie, the Korean gangster Mr Jang hasn't spoken a word other than in Korean (not even English)?

Unknown said...

My initial excitement for the movie came from the fact that it seemed interested in telling the post-human story from the post-human's perspective. Though we get some of that from Doctor Manhattan in Watchmen, most often the post-human story is told from a still-regular human perspective. In Akira we follow around Kanada, not Tetsuo. So I liked that Besson tried to tell the story of what it might be like to be post-human (speculation being such an important part of science fiction), but was disappointed that he fell back on so many cliches.

Jun Zhang said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jun Zhang said...

To unknown: just to replay some cliches for your nausea -
Cellular communication is visualized as beams shooting straight to the sky and Lucy manipulates it with a friendly, Minority Report ish UI that magically appears in midair. The UI, I speculate, is more for the audience's benefit (how can we understand the way she manipulates the electromagnetic waves if it is shown?). But my issue is, this defeats the purpose of portending to offer a look at the alienness a superhuman feels like. This movie cannot be any further from what Under the Skin has accomplished.
And when she was surfing the web with mad skills like any other good superhuman, I was wondering how much ram was packed into that cheap looking laptop for it to last without crashing.

Tim Schmidt said...

From the first trailer onward, this film looked like something made for DVD rental on a quiet night, which is probably when I'll check it out. As for Luc Besson and racial stereotypes, that's hardly something new for him - the Taken franchise pretty much goes out of its way to make you hate people from the Balkans.

For the time being, I'd be much more interested in your take on Guardians of the Galaxy. Have you watched it yet?

Abigail Nussbaum said...

asakiyume:

It feels as if Besson thinks that he's given Lucy antagonists and challenges in the form of the gangsters, but he's also clearly so enamored of her superpowers that he keeps making her more and more powerful in order to have cool scenes of her doing otherworldly stuff. And, as you say, that results in a totally inert story. The film should either have jettisoned the action plot early on (which might not have made for a good movie but at least would have been less silly), or tempered Lucy's progression towards godhood.

Unknown:

In fairness, I don't know how you could tell a story from a posthuman perspective - even if a writer were creative enough to imagine it, how would you convey it to an audience? I think you'd end up with something not unlike Upstream Color, which is obviously not a bad thing, but clearly not the film Besson was trying to make.

I did think that the choice to emphasize Lucy's growing inhumanity without turning her into a complete monster (as the recent Transcendence apparently did), was a strong one, but it's undermined by Besson's silly concept of transhumanism.

Tim:

I did see Guardians of the Galaxy about a month ago (I sort of took a blogging pause this summer, during which several books and movies fell by the wayside). Can't say that I have that much to say about it, though - I liked it well enough, but it isn't nearly as clever or funny as it needs to be to pull of its effervescent tone, and a lot of the time it uses its (excellent) soundtrack as a crutch (plus, the regular MCU problems with female characters, turned up slightly in this case). It's a fun film and I'm glad it was so successful - these days, the only way we're going to get an original space opera is if it can be folded into something like the MCU - but it feels too flimsy to say much about.

skinnyblackcladdink said...

Under the Skin seems the obvious reference for some of your points - particularly re: Johansson, posthumanism, & esp since you mentioned Her - but it isn't mentioned here. was that a deliberate choice or have you not seen it? if the former, why? if the latter, are you interested at all in seeing it, & if so do you plan on writing about it? since Tim brought up the 'I'd be much more interested in your take on' thing, well: i'd be much more interested in your take on Under the Skin.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I haven't seen Under the Skin, mainly because it didn't get a theatrical release around here and I haven't yet gotten around to getting it off iTunes. It certainly seems like an important data point in this conversation, though I've heard conflicting reports about its success at this effort.

skinnyblackcladdink said...

if you do get around to seeing it, i do hope you write about it - i really would be interested to read your particular take on it. i think Under the Skin is most certainly a 'success' as a different approach to (perhaps as a 'formal experiment' in) cinema - much the way i think Upstream Color was last year. however, in terms of content it has seemed quite a bit more, erm, contentious, w/ different viewers seeming to have remarkably different - in fact contradictory - readings of it.

Tim Schmidt said...

After having watched it yesterday, the film reminds me of a cross between Besson's revenge thriller Taken - only this time with an attractive woman, instead of an old man - and Limitless, the 2011 version of the "person takes a new drug and becomes super smart" trope. Except that Limitless is way more fun to watch, as Bradley Cooper's character doesn't achieve invincibility right off the bat.

I got the impression that Besson just didn't know whether he wanted to make another braindead-fun revenge thriller or a serious Science Fiction film about transhumanism. Consequently, the film tackles neither genre very well and seems half-assed.

Let's hope the dreaded "Syfy"-Channel does better when they tackle Arthur C. Clarke's transhumanist classic "Childhood End" next year. It's about time this issue is presented in a more sophisticated manner.

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