This could have been the summer of strong women at the box office. Rita (Emily Blunt) in Edge of Tomorrow kicked things off in what Entertainment Weeklycalled "the most feminist summer action flick in years"; Angelina Jolie and Elle Fanning secured the title card on Maleficent; Melissa McCarthy headlined another McCarthy vehicle in Tammy; even Dwayne Johnson fought beside an Amazonian arrow-sniper in Hercules.
And Lucy could have been a female-driven sci-fi action movie, since it revolves around Scarlett Johansson, an actress who at least knows her way around a martial arts class. But it turns out Lucy, despite the promise of the trailers, is not a movie about a woman drawn into a sci-fi scenario of superhuman enhancement. It's a movie about tapping the full potential of humanism through drugs in which writer and director Luc Besson uses Johansson as a stand-in for a characterless stage in human evolution.
Of course, Lucy is not the only disappointment on this summer's—or any year's—slate of ostensibly female-driven movies. Edge of Tomorrow was a surprise because it's billed as a Tom Cruise vehicle and allows Blunt to more than hold her own. But Lucy is particularly disappointing because the trailers suggest a journey by the title character toward controlling her own circumstances, while the movie actually portrays a woman who is the puppet of external forces.
"I'm colonizing my own brain," she declares at one point, but Lucy is not actually making any choices; the drugs—or evolution, according to the heavy-handed movie logic—are clearly in control.
Besson's previous, better work includes examples of iconic action (The Transporter), sci-fi (The Fifth Element), and female-driven drama (La Femme Nikita), so the movie had real potential. Instead, Lucy is full of disappointing and surprisingly amateur choices by Besson, from the early—and quickly abandoned—use of wildlife clips to illustrate Lucy as prey and Morgan Freeman's (as Professor Norman) "scientific" exposition on the myth that human beings only use 10 percent of their brain.
Early on, the movie appears to take the form of a vengeance tale, in which Lucy hunts down and punishes the men who forced her into becoming a drug mule. From the opening scene to the point at which Lucy's captors kick her in the drug-filled stomach, Lucy is a tightly-paced action movie about a hapless study abroad student in Taipei drawn into an international drug ring.
It then takes a sharp turn into the surreal with an inexplicable gravity-defying, writhing-on-the-ceiling scene that prompts visual comparison to other cinematic depictions of demon possession (this creepy visual shorthand reappears in several later scenes but never makes any narrative sense). Lucy, it turns out, is carrying CPH4, a made-up drug that (according to the movie) pregnant women produce in small quantities to aid brain development.