Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Review: "Lucy"

Luc Besson is a great director, and he's always been one of those filmmakers whose attachment to a project makes me sit up and take note.  With films like Léon, The Fifth Element, The Transporter and of course La Femme Nikita he is a frequent go to when I want a smart action film to watch.  But sometimes when a director gets into the middle of their career they feel it necessary to, "Switch things up," and it's not always successful.  While it made a lot of money at the box office and is still (as of this writing) in second place in North America, Lucy--I think--is an example of this phenomenon in action.

Starring the Scarlett Johansson (of The Avengers, Match Point and Vicky Christina Barcelona among others), the film springs from the now disproven notion that we use only 10% of our brain capacity.  It tells the story of a young woman who is roped into drug trafficking and ends up ingesting a drug which causes her brain to begin, "Waking up."  In the process she links up with Morgan Freeman (Shawshank Redemption, Se7en, and Driving Miss Daisy), a professor of neuroscience whose work in mapping the human brain makes him the ideal sidekick, and a random French police detective (played by the fantastic Amr Waked).  It's a simple plot and a good starting point and doesn't require you to suspend too much disbelief at the outset. Unfortunately, Besson's script leaves something to be desired.

Scarlett, fresh off the acclaim of films like The Avengers, turned in a fairly solid performance.  I enjoyed the choices she made about how to express a loss of humanity physically (which telegraphed the process much better than her continuous monologuing).  I also felt that even though the progression from a student studying something exceedingly vague in Asia at the beginning of the film to the end result of her journey was perhaps a bit quick, it had more to do with the direction than her abilities as an actress.  She was believably scared when she needed to be and reacted as I would expect her to to most interactions she had, though near the end of the film that amounts to one note as her increased brain power has a negative affect on her ability to empathize with others.

Morgan Freeman, for his part, was also effective in the role he was given, though again: Besson is getting away with basically no character development on the backs of his actors.  Freeman could read me the phonebook and I'd watch it but that's still not a reason to give him such a lackluster character.  In any case, his performance was also solid and anchored some of the more off-the-wall plot devices that were being used here.  I can say without hesitation that the one thing Besson did very well here was casting.  Ming sik-choi (Oldboy) is a fantastic choice for our big bad Mr. Jang and navigates his storyline in an utterly terrifying and quiet way at the beginning, shifting into high gear near the end.  And while the casting of Amr Waked is also quite good, I have the same lament for all the actors here: they simply didn't have enough to work with.  While charming, Waked is nothing more than a glorified plot point here, used to round up some criminals for the convenience of Johansson.

And so we come to the script, which unfortunately is so thin that I'm surprised this film even got made.  I can only assume that the star power of Johansson and Freeman was what allowed Besson to get funding here.  I know why Johansson would sign on, since at this point in her career she needs to prove her worth at the box office somehow, and Marvel seems determined not to give her a film of her own, but I'm not entirely sure about Freeman.  Besson's talent has never been in scriptwriting.  In my opinion his strength has always been in the direction he gives to action sequences.  In his hands a simple car chase is dynamic and thrilling, a fight sequence is tense and can even develop character.  And indeed here we see glimpses of the film that Lucy could have been if not for Besson's need to expand his range into arthouse.

Let's talk about that artistic expression for a moment, since it is--unfortunately--the thing I find most disconcerting about the film.  Besson's premise is that humanity is rooted firmly in where we have been and that within the cells of our bodies we contain all the information that ever was if only we could access it.  It's a nice starting point for a film but the progression has to grow to something from there and all the Morgan Freeman lecturing in the world doesn't help if you're running his voice over on top of a CGI "ancestor" (which they claim is "Lucy" the oldest known hominid).  The tie in to this is a nice idea but the execution is clumsy and confusing.  The effect of using cut away nature shots with Mogran Freeman's voice has the unfortunate result of making you feel like you're watching La Femme Nikita meets a Disney nature film.  It's not effective, and it pulls you right out of the narrative and into your own head, something that does not help the pacing of the film.

In the end there are a lot of things that worked (casting, action scenes, concept), and a lot that didn't (script, stylization, character) but the film overall was a disappointment as I know Besson and his actors can do better.  So, I have a little homework for those who haven't had the pleasure, a list of the films that show was this could have been like and the talent that was squandered on a script that needed work:

Besson: Léon, La Femme Nikita
Johansson: Vicky Christina Barcelona, Lost in Translation
Sik-Choi: Oldboy
Freeman: Shawshank Redemption, Driving Miss Daisy

So in the end I'm giving this a slightly higher rating just for sheer effort, and it is definitely worth watching but keep your expectations low.

My rating: 2.75 out of 4

No comments:

Post a Comment