crap i have watched recently #26

lucy van peltExpand your mind but beware of SPOILERS!

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Lucy (2014):  A long time ago (1980) I watched a film called Altered States in which William Hurt dove a bit too deeply into the sensory deprivation tank and psychedelic drug fads, got in touch with his inner caveman, and ran naked with the wild animals at the zoo before nearly disappearing into a state of pure noncorporeal being.  There were a lot of mind-blowing (well, for the time) special effects, unironic pseudo-sciency philosophizing, and the occasional odd descent into violence.   It had an impressive pedigree:  it was based on a novel by Paddy Chayefsky (who later had his name removed from the film), was directed by Ken Russell, and starred then-unknowns William Hurt and Drew Barrymore.   It was chock full of Big Ideas about the nature of consciousness, the origins of humanity, and the existence of god.  And it was deeply, profoundly, unapologetically silly.

I only bring it up because Lucy reminds me a lot of Altered States.  Scarlett Johansson plays Lucy, a young woman who is studying in Taipei.  She parties a bit and has sketchy taste in men but she basically has a good head on her shoulders.  When a guy she’s been dating for a week begs her to carry a mysterious briefcase into an office building, she will have none of it.  When she starts to walk off he slaps the case to her wrist with a handcuff and things go suddenly very wrong.  The case is full of an experimental drug, the men in the office building are violent gangsters, and after witnessing a few murders and begging tearfully for her life, Lucy winds up with a bag full of the mysterious drug sewn into her abdomen.   She’s kicked in the stomach by one of her captors, the bag ruptures, and Lucy receives a massive overdose.  When she regains consciousness (after some really bizarre acrobatics), she is … changed.

Lucy’s tale alternates with a lecture being given on human “cerebral capacity” by Morgan Freeman.  This serves as the framework for what is happening to Lucy, as the drug essentially expands the capacity of her mind.   Freeman’s soothing and trustworthy voice tells us that humans only use 10% of their cerebral capacity, and that if we could use more we’d be able to control matter and time and all those kind of things.  He is full of meaningless platitudes (“if you have one neuron you have life, if you have two you have movement”) and wacky untestable hypotheses, and appears unhindered by any understanding of evolutionary or cellular biology.  When Lucy realizes what is happening to her she looks him up, and the two of them, along with a French cop, race against time and Korean drug lords to secure the rest of the drug and complete Lucy’s odyssey.

Although the movie is fun in a train-wreck kind of way, Johansson is easily the best thing about it.  As I’ve noted before, she does scared really well and in the beginning of this movie she impressively portrays Lucy’s stomach churning, blubbering fear as she realizes just what a bad situation she’s found herself in.  Later in the film she starts to dissolve while on an airplane and as her face melts she races frantically through the aisle, telekinetically flinging attendants aside, until she can reach the bathroom and shovel drugs into her Dali-esque mouth.  As her humanity recedes and disappears her face loses expression and she spends much of the film with the distracted stare of a woman who is multitasking on many levels.   She handles the action scenes well but it’s hard not to think that Besson was capitalizing on her popular Black Widow character from The Avengers franchise.   A sizable chunk of the movie-going population probably doesn’t want to pay 15 bucks to watch Scarlett Johansson be all smart and stuff.

Like Altered States, Lucy wants more than anything to be about Big Ideas, so much so that they whack us over the head with them at every opportunity.  Lucy is blatantly and repeatedly likened to the famous Australopithecus afarensis fossil, who the film calls “the first woman”.  (Umm, no.)  The film relies heavily on the long-discredited “we only use 10% of our brains” trope (does anyone still believe that?) and without that underpinning, it is nonsensical.  Well, it is nonsensical anyways, but you know what I mean.  The drug that causes Lucy’s transformation, CPH4, appears to be entirely made up.  In the film it is described as a hormone produced by pregnant women in minute amounts that “acts like an atom bomb” in a developing fetus and causes the burst of differentiation seen during fetal development.  In adults in high doses it causes rapid cell growth and increased neural capacity.  Apparently, using more of our “cerebral capacity” will make us both telepathic and telekinetic and also able to manipulate time.   There are trippy special effects and conversations that would not have been out of place in a late 60’s college dorm (“I can see the air.”).  Unfortunately, because Scarlett Johansson is a kick-ass female action star, this movie also wants to be an ass-kicking action film.  Thus we get to see Lucy shoot people like a pro, lead an exciting car chase through the streets of Paris (that brought back some memories, let me tell you), and take out drug lords without ever breaking a sweat.  It is sort of disorienting.  The problem with having an omniscient and omnipotent heroine is that it tends to kill suspense, and despite all the frantic activity and the impressive body count, there is no real sense of urgency about the outcome.

In the end, Lucy is like Altered States in another, more profound way.  In Altered States, William Hurt’s character has an opportunity to meld with the eternal subconscious, to essentially become one with God, and decides it’s better to be human.   Lucy’s choice is a bit different but also hinges on the value of messy, unpredictable, humanity.  Having reached 100% of her cerebral capacity, she samples all knowledge gained from the entirety of life on Earth, goes back to the beginning of the universe, creates a supercomputer to process it all, and disappears into the aether.   She (it?) then hands a billion years’ worth of knowledge to the Professor.  On a USB flash drive.

Well, I laughed.

Score:  Meh.

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~ by gun street girl on August 3, 2014.

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