After being beaten up by Taiwanese gangsters, the bag of blue crystals sewn into drug mule Lucy’s (Johansson) stomach ruptures and leaks into her bloodstream, causing her brain capacity to surge. But as she enters superhuman realms, her tolerance for human weakness diminishes.
For half a movie, Lucy reminds you why you used to love Luc Besson. Not bothering with the rigours of set-up, we meet Lucy, a partied-too-hard student doing a last lap of Taiwan before shipping back to real life. She’s sort of slutty: bottle-blonde hair, hooker skirt, and a week-long boyfriend (Borgen’s Pilou Asbæk) who sure isn’t a keeper. Scarlett Johansson, milking the contrast with the super-Lucy to come, plays the pre-transformation girl as likably wide-eyed and vulnerable, with just a hint of native savvy.
Cajoled into delivering a suspect suitcase (how many innocent drop-offs include a handcuff?) to a Taiwanese syndicate, it takes only a few slick cuts before Lucy is up to her pretty neck in luridly tattooed wacko-gangsters with a bag of CPH4 — the latest in designer drugs heading for Europe’s clubs, albeit one that has bypassed the trial stage — sewn into her stomach lining.
Amid the film’s ready supply of screwy science is the news that CPH4 is some kind of atomic-powered growth formula that, in quantum amounts, kickstarts the development of all the bones in a foetus. When the bag splits, in a flurry of CG fireworks, the cosmic cocaine smashes into Lucy’s cerebral cortex, upgrading her from pitiful human levels of ten per cent brain usage towards the Stargate-crossing mystical hooey of 100 per cent capacity. In other words, upgrading Lucy from victim of male brutality into superhuman Lady Vengeance.
For a blissful while, the film lands on a hyper-cool fusion of superhero gig and exotic thriller, with Besson mounting a series of divinely amoral, logic-be-damned sequences of lethal Lucy going about her brainiac makeover. Apart from taking out a penthouse of snarling hoods, this includes breaking into a hospital and forcing a doctor to remove the remaining CPH4 without anaesthetic while she uses his cell phone to call home.
Meanwhile, leading brain specialist Morgan Freeman (only using five per cent of his total wisdom) expounds on the limits of the human brain and what might lie beyond — by 50 per cent capacity the laws of physics become your playthings. Using the X-Men register, Lucy develops into a slick-chick combo of Magneto, Mystique, Professor X and Quicksilver.
Then, as literally mind-blowingly intelligent as Lucy becomes, the film crosses into ultra-cobblers. From that welcome self-homage to the sleek early Besson of Nikita and Léon, via the ultraviolent revenge-tragedies of Park Chan-wook (Oldboy star Choi Min-sik makes a suitably heinous kingpin), it freewheels into the quasi-philosophical sci-fi burbling of The Matrix as Lucy starts jacking into some higher state of consciousness — like Samantha from Her — and what was silly, sexy and fun becomes silly and pompous, consuming the stylish action in lumps of matter-tormenting CG. By the time Lucy is vaulting through time and space, things comes over all Terrence Malick (yes, you read that right), grandly pixel-painting the Big Bang, the dawn of life, and stopping off to gawp at an angry dinosaur. The last thing anyone wants is for this nonsense to mean something.
What keeps us watching, eager for the outcome, is the always scintillating star turn from Johansson, perfectly capturing the psychological plunge from foolish waif into a luscious-lipped, icy-eyed, femme-fatale Dr. Manhattan, moving beyond the constraints of morality, desire, fear and frailty into superhuman levels of pouting.
What begins as a thrilling pastiche of comic-book formula gets bogged down in its own scientific prattle — not that you ever stop adoring Johansson’s magnificent heroine.