It is a popular notion that humans utilise only ten per cent of their brain capacity, a notion that according to modern neuroscience seems to be more urban myth than scientific fact. But let us suppose it were true. One then wonders what might be possible if humans could tap into the remaining ninety per cent of their cerebral potential. This is the premise for Luc Besson’s latest motion picture Lucy (2014), a rambunctious blend of science-fiction and action from the director of The Professional (Leon, 1994), The Fifth Element (1997), Angel-A (2005) and The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec (2010).
Without divulging too many particulars of the plot, the story concerns a woman named Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) who, due to being contaminated by a powerful narcotic stimulant, acquires the ability to access an ever-increasing amount of her mind. The potentialities of tapping into the supposedly unused ninety per cent of cerebral matter are foreshadowed in a series of speeches from neuroscientist Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman). Lucy launches a one-woman assault on the drug traffickers responsible for her unstable condition, as she becomes ‘superhuman’ in her mental abilities, blessed with powers such as telekinesis (the ability to move objects without contacting them physically – the same talent exhibited by Sissy Spacek in the 1976 film Carrie) and extra sensory perception (also know as the sixth sense).
Although it makes for a dazzling sci-fi action spectacle, one flaw with Lucy is that due to the increasingly invincible state of its eponymous character, suspense and drama are quickly deflated, as Lucy’s nogoodnik adversaries go from being genuinely menacing to comically pathetic – and a heroine is only as good as her opponents. Another liability is Besson’s over-reliance on computer-generated imagery (CGI). One may argue in favour of such cinematic technology when it’s in service of the story or no other options are available, but here it just feels like overkill. Also, CGI, more often than not, has a tendency to look somewhat inauthentic. Nowhere in Lucy is this more apparent than the appearance of the title character’s namesake, the simian creature believed by evolutionary scientists to be humankind’s original ancestor (if you want to see what such a being should look like, I refer you to the cave dwellers in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey).
On a related note, I recall a television interview with Star Wars creator George Lucas, where he responded to the critics of his heavy dependence upon computer-generated special effects for Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999), with a condescending “Duh, movies aren’t real!” Well, “Duh!” right back at you, Mister Lucas – no kidding movies “aren’t real”, but they’re at least meant to appear authentic; otherwise, nobody would care about silly little things such as appropriate period detail and thespians remaining in character. Yes, we know that a man can’t fly, but we don’t want to see the wires that allow Superman to remain airborne. And this is the problem with films such as Lucy. As impressive as the special effects might be, it’s all too obvious that they are special effects. Those viewers who were fortunate enough to experience Luc Besson’s marine life documentary Atlantis (1991) this past week at the Astor know that the French filmmaker requires little if any hi-tech trickery to astound his audience. So the CGI overload presented in Lucy is somewhat puzzling to say the least. Ultimately, it distracts rather than engages.
Still, despite its numerous flaws and excesses, Lucy does manage to keep us guessing as to what might become of its heroine once she connects to 100 per cent of her mind’s abilities (inter-titles appear at various points in the picture to inform us of the percentage of Lucy’s accessed brain capacity), so it does retain at least some sliver of intrigue. For those viewers who typically enjoy Luc Besson’s directorial output, Lucy is a worthy of at least a once-around. Even though its premise is scientifically suspect, this is a science fiction picture (you will need to accept it on its own terms) and it does raise some interesting ideas as to what human beings might be capable of realising as the species evolves over the next several thousand years – unless, of course, we outsmart ourselves and wipe humankind from the face of the planet.
Written by Mark Vanselow for the Astor Theatre