Mon
Jul 28 2014 10:00am

Lucy is Like a Party Where Clichés Get Drunk and Fight

It’s true that Lucy is an aggressively dumb movie masquerading as a thoughtful one, but it’s worse than that because even its pretention feels like a put-on. Here is a film that attempts to answer a philosophical question which Douglas Adams managed to take care of with a few witty lines. While Douglas Adams was joking, Lucy is simply a joke.

In most professions, there are conferences where everyone meets up to talk about various things germane to their industries. In publishing, there are tons, but as all you smart people know, these sorts of conferences exist in various fields; everything from social sciences to bird watching to people who see celebrities in soap suds. I invite you to think of Lucy not as a movie, but a metaphysical form of one of these conferences, and the things who are all meeting up and hanging out together are clichés themselves. These clichés quickly begin to fight each other dominance, which I’m sure is, in it of itself some sort of cliché.

Early in the movie, a hipster drug-smuggler character quips “Did you know the first woman ever was named Lucy?” referencing the famous pre-history hominid. So, if you’re in 5th grade, you’ll be excited to know that the title has a double meaning, insofar as it refers not just to the “character” featured in the “plot,” but also the idea of what it means to be a person. See what Luc Besson did there? Remember when he posited that the 5th element was actually “love?”

Here is a filmmaker who is so good at juxtaposition of cheap nature documentary footage with robotic performances from his actors that I can’t hardly wait for what clever way he’ll think to explore the human condition next. I mean, the notion that our behaviors are no different than those of organized animals is a really, really deep thought experiment, which is why you’ve seen it just about everywhere, including nature documentaries. Here, you get lucky, because that super-profound and brand-new concept is explained in both dialogue and with extremely clever visuals featuring the afore-mentioned footage from actual nature documentaries in which cheetahs are hunting their prey. Cool right? We’re all just soooo primitive! If only we could expand our minds. Maybe this movie will help. Toward the end of the movie, when the character of Lucy (who is probably played by the simulacrum of Scarlett Johansson from Under the Skin) sort of time-travels and meets a dinosaur and later, a monkey, the audience is given one last chance to “get it,” before the film wraps up. Did you get it? Lucy is everything, by which we mean, the universe (plus more!) And the universe is like, you know so infinite, which is why it’s so finite. Anybody want to smoke some grass and listen to Pink Floyd?

Because she gets saddled with a bunch of bad drugs from some Asian mobster characters (who are clearly looking for work in old Quentin Tarantino movies) Lucy ends up developing super-powers akin to what Neo is able to do in the Matrix. The downside is she ends up “losing her humanity,” because what it means to be human is to be limited (remember the nature documentaries?) and what she’s evolving into is way too far out for that, man.

At some point she meets a brilliant scientist played by Morgan Freeman who actually says the words “evolution” and “revolution” right next to each other, moments before dismissing any speculation about how unlocking the potential of the human brain is “science fiction.” In a mainstream cliché conference like Lucy, having a character say “science fiction” out loud is code-speak for “bullshit,” which signals the audience to stop asking questions about why anything is happening. I love science fiction, and I love Morgan Freeman, so I also loved hearing Morgan Freeman’s wonderful voice say the words next to each other. It’s too bad it was in this movie.

I guess the weirdest cliché paradox of all is this: because Luc Besson has created a movie about “expanding our minds,” he thinks he doesn’t have to adhere to any sort of convention. This should, in theory, free him up to not use stock characters, crappy dialogue, or an over reliance on chase-scenes and dumb gun-play to keep the audience entertained. And yet, that’s all that keeps this movie from being totally unwatchable. The Matrix actually committed this crime over a decade ago: a movie about freeing your mind which was really just a series of gun-battles which mainstream dumbed-down pop culture already loves, meaning, hello, your mind is not being freed. The reason The Matrix got away with it is because at least the style of those action sequences were admittedly very new. Lucy can’t say anything like that because visually there’s nothing in these “action” sequences you haven’t already seen before. Further, there’s nothing in the spy intrigue aspect of this movie that Get Smart didn’t make more gripping, and the science fiction concepts being “explored,” are handled better in that episode of The Next Generation where Barclay turns into a jerk and has that blue-light dancing on his head.

In the same scene in which Morgan Freeman says all the stuff about sci-fi and unlocking our brains, he also mentions dolphins, who, as we know, are way smarter than us. (Major Spoiler alert: Scarlett Johansson does NOT turn into a dolphin.) And though Lucy never reveals anything about what mice are up to in this particular reality, we already know what Douglas Adams said about dolphins in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Before departing the Earth, they told the humans “so long and thanks for all the fish!”

So long, Lucy! Thanks for nothing.


Ryan Britt is a longtime contributor to Tor.com.

32 comments
Marilynn Byerly
1. MByerly
I was wondering why LUCY beat HERCULES at the box office, then I connected the two names. People saw LUCY, thought, "oh, HERCULES which equals Lucy Loveless which equals XENA" so they went thinking they'd see Xena kick butt.

Sadly, this equation wasn't right.
Christopher Bennett
2. ChristopherLBennett
So, basically, if you want to see a movie about ScarJo evolving into a higher intelligence, rent Her.

I'm impressed that you could find so much to critique about this movie without even mentioning the stupid "We use 10 percent of our brains" cliche that the movie is so heavily built around. I guess it's too easy a target.

And your first sentence sums up exactly the impression I got just from watching the trailer. I guess it says something that there's no more substance to the whole film than the trailer alone conveyed.

And no, movie character, the first woman ever was not named Lucy. Lucy was the nickname for the first discovered skeleton (well, 40% of a skeleton) of an early hominid species that may have been a direct ancestor of humans. Just because it was the first relatively complete skeleton found of that species doesn't mean it was the first that ever existed.
lach7
3. lach7
Dang! This is the most thoughtful and intellectually stimulating review of a movie that is really neither!

I agree that LUCY is not a great movie. But as far as the metaphysical musings of the movie, such musings have to be entered at different levels for different people. It's very easy for those who have more experience in exploring such questions to look askance at more elementary questioners or presentations of such issues that are meant for more philosophically-beginning audiences.

I took the movie's dabbling into such issues (and I don't think the movie did more than dabble into such issues) to be just a raising of questions and suppositions that some people have perhaps not thought about before. As a philosopher, any medium that get's people thinking about bigger questions or issues than their own little universe I take to be positive, at least to that degree.

I actually really enjoyed the first two-thirds of LUCY. It was the final act that really fell apart for me.
Fredrik Coulter
4. fcoulter
I was entertained by the movie. And I go to movies at theaters in order to be entertained.

Generally, thought provoking movies work just as well on the small screen for far less money, so thought provoking is not something I look for on the big screen. (If it's there AND entertaining, it's an unanticipated double win.)
lach7
5. Jesslyn H
My husband and I were both entertained. There were a couple of spots where I scratched my head, but I like to take movies in the spirit in which they are given. It was no Prometheus, but I walked away happy that I'd seen it.

And god knows, I've seen much, much worse. (Shudders, remembering The Lone Ranger)

I usually watch 'thought provoking' movies at home on DVDs so I can pause/rewind when I zone out on the endless dialogue.
lach7
6. GarrettC
I was pretty dismayed, but not surprised, that Lucy did so well opening weekend (it's already made back its production budget), because in addition to being the most obvious mish-mash of the laziest science fiction tropes that science fiction doesn't even use anymore, it was sold on the premise that if somebody does not speak English, you can shoot them in the face. This scene was in every trailer I saw. It was clearly supposed to be Lucy's Awesome Moment of Awesome that she shoots a presumed non-English speaker in the face, because he does not want to speak English.

America: The Movie
lach7
7. NotLucy
@6 - she shot him in the leg, not the face. Which is odd, considering she seemed to be aiming at his face.

In any case, she might be forgiven, since she was just knocked out, had drugs surgically implanted, sexually assaulted, killed five or six guys while being shot, and didn't want to put up with any more crap before getting to the hospital. According to Besson's model for this character, she's feeling less empathy than the rest of us and knows what will motivate to get her what she needs.

I found this an interesting movie, simply to be entertained and think about new perspectives, even if fictional. Might go see it again even.
Christopher Bennett
8. ChristopherLBennett
@3: "It was the final act that really fell apart for me."

It's startling how often that's true of modern movies. There are so many stories that work well in the first two acts and then go completely to hell in the third. It suggests a systemic flaw in the way Hollywood approaches the screenwriting/plotting process.
lach7
9. elvensnow
So based on this the movie turned out about as I expected from the trailers. Not surprising. I was pretty sure I could not have managed seeing the whole thing since I would BSOD with rage over the "10% of our brains" bit.

As for those saying it's not worth seeing a thought-provoking movie in theaters, I disagree. I saw "Her" in theaters and enjoyed it immensely. And it's about the furthest from actiony gun slinging you can get. I would say it's been one of the best movie expenses for me in recent history.

It's fine that you have different preferences, but don't act like the only thing they are allowed to play in theaters is turn-your-brain-off-before-entering fodder. Or that we are silly for asking for thoughtful movies. Besides, there's absolutely no reason it can't be BOTH. This idea that a movie can only be entertaining OR thought provoking is exactly what allows junk like Lucy to get made. "No one cares about all that sciency crap! Just give them ScarJo shooting people in the face!"
lach7
10. GarrettC
@7. Interesting. I saw her aim at what looks like his face, shoot, and him fall down, so... it's marginally not as awful as I'd believed.

And my dismay was less that Lucy was justified in context and more that the movie was being sold on that moment largely out of context. It dismays me that you can sell a movie by showing hot women shoot Asians indiscriminately for not speaking English.

Now, in context, there are other things to be said. I'm concerned that the movie engages in a kind of assault fantasy (as you say, she was just knocked out, had drugs surgically implanted, AND sexually assaulted) that's used to enable a revenge-as-therapy fantasy, but I don't really know whether or not it does do these things because I did not contribute to its $44 million, only that the advertising is suggestive of them.

I have read others who have seen the movie who have commented on problems with depicting smart women as un-human, and with erasing race in the species origin story, and combined with the generally unflattering reviews and Besson's own history, it definitely seems to be a movie fraught with weeds that could use pulling.
Chris Nelly
11. Aeryl
I wasn't ready for that picture of Jonathan Brandies, PEOPLE
Christopher Bennett
12. ChristopherLBennett
Good grief, on top of all the other cliches, it throws in the rape-as-origin-story-for-strong-heroine trope too? Okay, that's one more reason not to see the film.

@9: I just saw Her on DVD, and I'm not sure it would've worked for me in theaters, since it was so languidly paced that it couldn't hold my interest for too long and it took me three sittings over more than a week to get through it. I liked a lot about the story -- I really liked the concepts and the understated worldbuilding -- but I wasn't fond of the directing, and the performances didn't engage me much.
Fredrik Coulter
13. fcoulter
I didn't do a good job of explaining my view on why I'm not looking for thought provoking movies in the theater. It's the screen and the money.

When I go to the movies, I pay money for something I could see just a few months later (or at the same time for some movies) in the privacy of my own home for far less money. So what am I paying for? I can get overly fat saturated popcorn at home. I can get huge cups of soda at home. I can even get "movie" candy at home. What I can't get at home is the screen.

So, it's not that I'm avoiding thought provoking movies in the theater, it's just that the vast majority of thought provoking movies don't need the big screen. They're just as thought provoking on a smaller screen, or on a computer monitor.

There are exceptions. The Tree of Life needed the big screen due to it's cinemotography. There are others. But what justifies going to the theater for me is the screen. Everything else I can do at home for cheaper.

(See, I'm not as shallow as I first appeared.)

By the way, I'm not at all sure what the "erasing race" comments are about. Could someone elaborate?
lach7
14. GarrettC
@13: Here's the relevant link that antecedes my comment about race.

http://blogs.indiewire.com/shadowandact/lucy-and-the-absence-of-the-black-race-in-origin-of-humanity-theories-20140728
corey chapman
15. martianblues
HAHAHA! I don't think I've ever been so entertained by such a scathing review. Nice job Mr. Britt.
lach7
16. Emmaline
@12: It's not a "rape-as-origin-story." First off, she isn't raped; she repels the assault. Second, this scene occurs after she's already "transformed." It's the first time we see her use her powers, but it isn't in any way what propels her to anything that comes after.
Christopher Bennett
17. ChristopherLBennett
@16: Even so, it's a cliche. You wouldn't see a male action hero have to fend off an attempted sexual assault, but it's par for the course for female ones.
lach7
18. coffeeisgod
We enjoyed it. It was a popcorn flick. No more, no less. Go to it without the hopes and expectations of something you've never seen before.

As this was a speculative fiction story, it was still more enjoyable and less preachy than Avatar. The acting and storywriting were far better, far more believable than Prometheus. This is also certainly not the only movie that perpetuates myth-as-fact.
lach7
19. FDS
There is no shame in enjoying a piece of work in any medium simply for your own entertainment; to say otherwise would be the essential equivalent to shaming a 30 (or older) person of any sex for enjoying a YA title (or a comic book). In that same vien, I would agree that somethings are better to see on a large screen; I caught the Amazing Spiderman II on a second run theater, paying $2 to see the movie and enjoyed it. However, my enjoyment was no greater than I experienced from seeing the original of this reboot series at home, on a DVD from my local library branch.

For some people, the car chase, explosion, gun fight, etc., is the sole reason to watch a movie and big screens (whether in a theater or at home) were made for them; just don't come across as defensive for wanting the escapism, "summer popcornish" of your desire when people point out that it's dumb, simplistic, tired, or all of the above in addition to being cliched.
lach7
20. shellywb
"Go to it without the hopes and expectations of something you've never seen before." et al:

I'm not blowing $20+ and 2 hours of life on meh.
Anthony Pero
21. anthonypero
@17: Clint Eastwood got raped in The Rookie. Its rare, but not unheard of.

Of couse, that movie was horrible. But still, it existed.
lach7
22. Jane Coffin
Although I have not seen "Lucy" I can not imagine anyone did this concept better than -

Jimmy Neutron: Sheen's Brain
http://vimeo.com/67017240
lach7
23. Australopithecus
Sorry you were too smart to enjoy this one! One might think that would have helped you relate a little more to Johansson's character.
lach7
24. Woodley
The link for the STNG episode actually also links to the Under the Skin article!
Doug Clanton
25. justgroovy
Yeah, of course you know that the first woman was named Lucy 'cause they found her driver's license buried with her.... You know, I think I'm going to watch this again when at home on Blu-ray. I'll turn off the sound and put on Pink Floyd's - Dark Side of the Moon album and watch it like G*d (or insert Morgan Freeman, Lucy, or Luc Besson; your choice) intended. The afore mentioned "The Matrix" was much better when watching it that way with Deep Purple - Machine Head playing....(Space Truckin'....) chill out man, peace!
lach7
26. Darkwing
Lucy committed the cardinal sin (besides idiotic in premise) of being boring. Excruciatingly boring, coupled with non-stop silly.

The characters had less depth than a piece of paper, there was no real plot to speak of, and it was about as visually interesting as ... as ... that same piece of paper.

I was hoping for something along the lines of The Professional, or La Femme Nikita, or Subway, or The Fifth Element, or even The Big Blue and got Swept Away instead (I know it's not a Besson film, it's just baaaaaad).
lach7
27. Savannah L-Breakstone
So watch it only for how gorgeous ScarJo is huh? Preferably with the sound off? (I could watch her read the dictionary.)
Adam S.
28. MDNY
This movie was terrible. I enjoy most of Luc Besson's movies. I don't go into them expecting intelligence (though Leon was a pleasant surprise in that regard). But I thoroughly enjoyed The Fifth Element, which was once summed up as a New York taxi driver in the future defeats a blob of evil that threatens to destroy Earth. The premise for Lucy had more potential than that, and just wasted it all on bad cliches and ridiculous frenetic pacing with no impact from the punches thrown.
lach7
29. TimC
In. Total. Disagreement.

I love most of Luc Besson's work. Have since I was a tot and repeatedly watched The Fifth Element.

If you go to this movie expecting a big dumb thriller, you aren't going to get it...because the writer/director is French. So sorry he didn't deliver a slab of American Movie cliches (despite Ryan Britt's witty article title). But it is a great movie. One of the year's best & we see a lot of movies. (Snowpiercer was great too, go see that as well).
Christopher Bennett
30. ChristopherLBennett
@29: Wow, you've totally misread most of our reactions. We're critical because we don't want a big dumb cliched thriller, and in many reviewers' opinion, this is one of the dumbest and most cliche-ridden thrillers ever made.
lach7
31. RJ Parker
If you have a good drinking game, any movie can be good... http://RatchetDrinkingGames.com -- See what I mean?
rob mcCathy
32. roblewmac
1. I hated it they lost me at the first nature footage
2 forget about the psionic powers. Why the Hell was the "i'm not gonna deliver your mystrey case." Bit so long? I guess that that was to show even a painfully stupid person becomes god-like if they use 100 percent of thier brain?

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