Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) is temporarily held hostage by thugs in “Lucy.” Photo by Jessica Forde
Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) is temporarily held hostage by thugs in “Lucy.” Photo by Jessica Forde
Arts Featured Rancho Santa Fe

Film review: Johansson unleashes the powers of the mind in ‘Lucy’

“Lucy” blends beauty with brains, yet doesn’t reach the full potential it envisioned.

A woman named Lucy (Scarlett Johansson), dispatched by the mob to work as an unwilling drug mule, transforms into a superhuman when some of the drug accidentally leaks into her body and unlocks the previously hypothetical levels of her brain capacity. As her abilities evolve and her emotions disappear, she seeks out the only person who could possibly understand her situation: Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman).

As much as “Lucy” wants to contribute to the public’s understanding of the brain through Johansson’s butt-kicking beauty, its middle-of-the-road impact leaves its true purpose open to debate. I wouldn’t go so far as to declare it a bad example of a popcorn movie, but, at the same time, it’s not exactly deserving of a science award. Rather, it is merely adequate.

On the one hand, “Lucy” has what it needs to at least entertain the audience. It’s incredibly fast-paced and very much plot-oriented, as well as tightly organized due to fabulous editing — no time is wasted, that’s for sure. And on top of that, there’s a generous portion of nail-biting action sequences in which Johansson shows off her newfound abilities, from the moment she escapes her captors in Taipei to the crazy car chase and hospital showdown in Paris.

There is this rhythmic domino effect of sorts within the digital effects from the get-go, most notably apparent in Lucy’s powers as a result of the drug within her system. It’s quite fascinating to watch how this woman’s capabilities grow and correspond with the ever-electrifying array of visuals appearing on screen. Witnessing her absorb information, manipulate matter, and feel everything around her is made even more cool by the fact that what she can do continues to unfold in an eye-catching form.

The film does pose interesting questions surrounding the unfathomable potential of the human mind; as I’m no expert in brain function, however, I can’t speak for what is fact and what is fiction here. But if this is director Luc Besson’s way of stimulating the public’s curiosity about the topic, and manages to persuade people not only to want to learn about it but also enjoy what they find out in the process, then I would say “Lucy” has achieved some success.

On the other hand, while the emphasis “Lucy” places on plot and visuals ensures the display of events will proceed without too many problems, the same can’t be said for characterization and acting.

Except for Morgan Freeman, nobody else — ally or adversary — has a prominent purpose, because the supporting cast is, for the most part, one-dimensional. Obviously this is not the kind of film where you would expect to see exemplary acting chops.

Come to think of it, not even Freeman has much to do other than to take up the “narrator” responsibilities simply to advance the plot. Perhaps it’s intentional on Besson’s part, considering the film is little more than a star vehicle for Johansson to flex her action heroine qualities? Yes, yes, I should think so, especially since she is the real center of attention.

Speaking of Johansson, once she transforms into an extraordinary superhuman, she exudes this self-assured, monotone presence that conveys little expressiveness, to the point where her face has the words “blank” and “vacant” written all over it. It’s certainly appropriate for the journey her Lucy undergoes, yet difficult for an audience member to identify with and relate to her character. Not what I’d call a defeat, but that doesn’t make it a victory either.

If you want to spend your remaining summer days watching Scarlett Johansson participate in brain-heavy set pieces, then I suppose “Lucy” should fit the bill. As for its premise concerning the human brain…well, you might have better luck consulting a leading authority on the subject matter.

This is just a movie, after all.

MPAA rating: R for strong violence, disturbing images, and sexuality.

Run time: 1 hour and 30 minutes

Playing: In general release