Judging by the box office success of “Lucy,” Scarlett Johansson’s main superpower is the ability to transform a confused and illogical collection of clichéd scenes into one of the summer’s surprise hits (well, that and her ability to transform carbonated water from the territories into something sexy).
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This is particularly sad when you consider the fact that Luc Besson’s thriller is based on an idea with endless possibilities: A young American woman who, overnight, becomes a superheroine after a dangerous drug implanted in her abdomen finds its way into her bloodstream and brain.
Gradually, the mysterious drug enables Lucy to develop complete control of her cognitive abilities. She can master new languages within a few hours, create a kind of impenetrable “human shield” around herself by manipulating electromagnetic fields, control any kind of screen or means of communication, and, just as important, read thoughts and penetrate other people’s deepest and most repressed memories. But even she cannot explain to viewers the logic behind all these new skills.
Now comes the inevitable question: What does Lucy do with all these impressive powers? The answer, regrettably, is not a lot. She pretty much does what any female character who has been abused does in revenge films – finds those who hurt her and, in various ways, hurts them back. Betwixt and between, she tries to make contact with a top neuroscientist (the somnambulant Morgan Freeman), who has developed a theory to the effect that maximum utilization of the human brain is possible.
In contrast to the abundant creativity in “The Fifth Element” – French director Besson’s best film, from 1997 – which moves between plot twists and visually stunning scenes, “Lucy” is disappointing on all fronts. The screenplay is lazy, spoon-feeding the audience and recycling innumerable scenes we have already seen in other movies, while the visual style is even more disappointing. Now and then there are more convincing scenes (for example, when Lucy finds the person responsible for her abduction), but throughout most of dialogue is unconvincing. Besson has seemingly reached the stage in his career where he prefers to use only 10 percent of his talent.
Thanks to a particularly effective trailer, “Lucy” has been marketed as a feminist film in which a brave woman sets out to take revenge on the men who have hurt her. But in reality it is quite sexist. Before her transformation, Lucy is just your average American bimbo who sleeps around – and we don’t know anything about her.
This leads us to the only smart thing Besson has done with “Lucy”: the casting of Johansson. She has apparently reached a point in her career in which she is fed up with playing human characters. Therefore, recent starring roles have seen her play a particularly varied collection of characters: a bodiless operating system in Spike Jonze’s “Her”; a man-eating alien in Jonathan Glazer’s wild and experimental “Under the Skin”; and, of course, the superheroine Black Widow (aka Natasha Romanoff) in Marvel film series (“Iron Man 2,” “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and “The Avengers” franchise). In this respect, “Lucy” is a natural choice – a strong female character in a violent world controlled by men.
Interestingly, all these films play with Johansson’s image as a sex symbol. In recent years, the actress – who became famous thanks to a string of roles as an object of desire (“The Other Boleyn Girl,” “Match Point,” “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” and, to a more sophisticated and restrained extent, “Lost in Translation”) – has become a star who depicts characters from other worlds.
It’s as though something in the fact that she has been in the spotlight for more than a decade isn’t making it possible for her to play simple, “regular” girls with whom men fall in love, but rather aliens, robots, operating systems and superheroines – all of them characters dealing with the question of what it means to be human.