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(2014) *** R
90 min. Universal Pictures. Director: Luc Besson. Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Min-sik Choi.


Big-budget mind-expansion sci-fi has been a thing of late, with Limitless, Transcendence, and now Luc Besson's Lucy exploring what happens when humanity gains "access to previously unexplored cerebral zones." Only one of these three pictures is named for a person, which along with Besson's live-wire style, begins to explain why Lucy is so relentlessly involving.

Scarlett Johansson stars as the titular Everywoman living a paycheck-to-paycheck existence barely broken up by a string of loser boyfriends. One of those boyfriends chains her to a briefcase and forces her to deliver it on his behalf, so before you can say, "super-drug," Lucy's been kidnapped, surgically altered into a mule, and inadvertently poisoned by the product she's unwillingly carrying in her gut. The added hitch? The drug on which she overdoses is a synthetic version of CPH4, a natural substance produced by pregnant women. As Besson's script has it, this hypothetical drug unlocks cerebral capacity, sending Lucy on a fantastic voyage toward 100% usage of her gray matter.

Of course, such rapid evolution comes with superpowers (including telekinesis and power over other minds and matter) but also a price. Looking for aid in self-preservation and the best use of her new powers, Lucy enlists French cop Pierre Del Rio (Amr Waked) and brainpower theorist Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman), even as she is chased by druglord Mr. Jang (Choi Min-Sik of Oldboy). It's all very self-consciously pulpy, a colorful, comic-book "what if?" tale with a very Luc Besson insistence on shootouts and reckless driving (even that old chestnut "Follow that car"). And yet, Lucy isn't so larky as it appears at first glance.

Besson's shovelful of sugar helps his science-fiction medicine go down. The material is always cheeky in its sense of humor and stylistic and cultural allusions (most prominently 2001: A Space Odyssey), and frequently, if not fundamentally, provocative in its suggestion that narcotized humanity doesn't think as often as it should about the gamut from human potential to the interconnectedness of everything in the universe. At the outset, Lucy narrates, "Life was given to us a billion years ago. What have we done with it?"; shortly thereafter, a lecturing Norman poses the philosophical question "Are humans more concerned with having than being?".

Everyone involved seems enlivened by the material. Johansson delivers a commanding, funny, poignant performance (check out her phone call to Mom, and tell me she can't act), and Freeman hasn't seemed so engaged in years as he does when Norman discovers his theories are true. Lucy moves with alacrity powered by its modern-feminine engine (her new cop friend reduced mostly to arm candy). From the hilarious opening moments of sexy cell-splitting (to something purposefully, uncomfortably close to porn music) to a catchy editing scheme intercutting nature footage to the visionary time-and-space-are-how-you-perceive-them finale, Besson reminds us how limber he can be.

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