Ever since Charles Darwin handed down his ground-breaking work on evolutionary biology, On the Origin of Species, in 1859, there has been an ongoing debate about exactly what humanity as a whole is capable of.
Are we destined to keep evolving to ever higher forms until we reach some, at this stage, unimagined apotheosis, or has Home Sapiens as a species already plateaued, stuck using just 10% of our brain (so the now widely discredited mythology on brain matter usage goes), idling in the slow lane of evolution on our way to cruising to an eventual halt?
There’s no doubting that creatively eccentric French director Luc Besson, who is perhaps best remembered for the rambunctiously quirky The Fifth Element (1997), falls into the first camp, with his latest feature Lucy, which he also scripted, advancing the idea that, given the right elements, humanity can go far further than anyone has even dared conceive.
In this instance, and it would only be possible in Besson’s persistently surreal world where reality is but window-dressing for excursions into the fantastical and the bizarre, that element in a synthesised version of a drug produced in the second trimester of pregnancy, CPH4, a supposedly “atom bomb” of an enzyme that turbo charges the development on the foetus.
Rendered in the film as bluish-purple crystals, CPH4 is intended as a new designer drug by cruel Korean mob boss Mr Jang (Choi Min-sik) for the young and indulgent partygoers of Europe which will be smuggled there sewn into the abdomens of four people, one of whom, Lucy (Scarlett Johansson, who brings humanity and yes gravitas to a role that rings true even as the film threatens to spiral into loopy, violent melodrama) ends up being treated a little too roughly by her thuggish captors to the point where her bag ruptures.
This overdose doesn’t, as you might expect, kill her – very little in Besson’s gleefully twisted world goes the way of orthodoxy – but instead empowers her, rapidly elevating the previously under-achieving student to almost god-like status, her brain breaking through neurological barriers to enhanced brain use like they’re matchsticks.
Possessed almost immediately of skills previously unknown to her such as martial arts, expert firearms use, and driving like a Formula 1 driver, which she uses to great effect on the crowded, chaotic streets of Paris in one memorable car chase scene, as well as the ability to alter her own body’s makeup along with increasingly that of the world around her, she gets in touch with renowned neuro-scientist Professor Samuel Norman (Morgan Freeman) seeking some understanding of what the drug is doing to her.
Freeman, who uses his august presence, and honey-soaked voice to great effect, intoning the most nonsensical of theories in such a way that they almost begin to seem real and possible – if nothing else, Besson has cast wisely and well, giving the characters credence where they might otherwise have had none in the hands of lesser thespian talents – is suitably startled, unable to comprehend at first that his theories have sprung to glorious life in the form of the ever more capable Lucy.
It is Lucy’s attempts to meet up with Norman, and simultaneously enact revenge on Jang and obtain the rest of the CPH4 crystals, that powers the film’s unexpectedly straightforward linear narrative, one that largely holds up even as she begins to change beyond all imagining into something both wholly human and yet almost divine.
Caught up in this crazy evolutionary melee is French cop Del Rio (Amr Waked) who finds himself hostage to Lucy’s erratic, if purposeful, behaviour, witnessing events so preposterously outside of reality – at one point, Lucy levitates a hall full of gangsters till they are cheeky by jowl with the roof tiles; in another she instantly sends everyone to sleep, dropping them like flies around the gobsmacked detective – that he begins to question his own sanity.
He is not alone as Besson’s playfully visual film, which skilfully uses stock footage of mice sniffing cheese in traps, and cheetahs stalking gazelle and many other parts of the natural world to augment plot points in play, veers between impressively bloody, gritty crime thriller, on-the-run treatise on the nature of man and what he might become, and a drug-addled dream/nightmare.
Over the top loopy it most certainly is, and you wonder at various times, many times, whether Besson is still in control of his full speed ahead film, but somehow he manages, through all the pseudo-scientific lunacy, to ask some reasonably serious questions about where humanity may end up down the evolutionary road.
Using one of the acknowledged ancestors of mankind, 3.2 million year old Australopithecus afarensis, Lucy, as his counterpoint, a creature whom Johansson “meets” as she travels through time and space in the insanely violent but almost breathtakingly poetic final act, he asks to wonder anew about where we have come from and where we might go to.
It is, though, not a giddily optimistic view of our evolutionary future, with Johannson’s Lucy increasingly losing any and all vestiges of compassion, empathy and love, in other words, the very things that the hard utilitarian edges of our intellectual abilities.
To her credit she does realise these defining characteristics of her previous self as being leached from her grasp, impulsively kissing Del Rio at one point “as a reminder”, but such is the endless forward momentum of her evolution to super human that they eventually fall away and she is left as an advanced, if soulless, being, alone with her intellect and ability, and precious little else.
Lucy is a surprising film.
Taken on visuals and its over the top elements alone, you could be forgiven for wondering if there is any cognitive heft or narrative sense anywhere in the movie’s DNA, but beating beneath all the gun battles and wild car chases, heavily-stylised visuals and the wildly dramatic finale, is the soul of a clever, intellectual movie that uses visual cues, vaguely scientific ideas and measured performances (no mean feat in a Besson movie) to advance some fairly revolutionary ideas while having a huge amount of unexpected fun.