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.

Scarlett Johansson in 'Lucy'
Image: Universal Pictures

Scarlett Johansson in 'Lucy'

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.

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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.

In the massive quantity Lucy ends up absorbing, it causes brain processes to speed up exponentially, cells to reproduce rapidly, memory to reach back to the womb, and, eventually, imparts the ability to control magnetic and electric waves, read minds, and control matter and time. To make this sound plausible, Besson cast Freeman, who does his best impression of an academic who knows what he's talking about but isn't very convincing, since his extensive study of the human brain apparently never theorized anything like the powers Lucy manifests.

Lucy passes the Bechdel Test (that is, it is a movie in which at least two female characters have names and discuss something besides a man)—but only because of an utterly disposable roommate. More significantly, the movie fails to give Lucy herself anything better as a character arc than a percentage: that is, the percentage of her brain she has reached at that point in the movie.

Lucy's powers begin with an innate knowledge of self-defense and the absence of fear, pain, and desire, so the loss of what little personality Lucy started with happens once she hits around 20 percent, or quite early in the movie. "I used to be so concerned with who I was and with who I wanted to be," she says at this point.

But since Lucy has given up on this cause, so does the movie, and it only touches on Lucy's motivation later when Prof. Norman tells Lucy the one true imperative of any organism is to "pass on" knowledge. The implication here is that Lucy has learned something from all this brain expansion, but the movie only portrays Lucy's loss of humanity. (2011's Limitless, by contrast, is a far more human drama about a man who tapped the mythic powers of the brain via drugs and learned to regret it.)

In Lucy, we get Freeman hooking Lucy up to an IV to pump her full of enough CPH4 to hit 100 percent and telling her, "I hope we will be worthy of your sacrifice." By this point, she's left a trail of car crash and gun shot victims in her wake, but apparently it is all in the name of human development.

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Scarlett Johansson and Morgan Freeman in 'Lucy'
Image: Universal Pictures

Scarlett Johansson and Morgan Freeman in 'Lucy'

A French police man (Amr Waked) Lucy has enlisted in her cause also offers the obvious protest that she doesn't really need a lesser human to tag along on her mission. She ends that argument by kissing him and calling him "a reminder," apparently of her humanity, but this is unconvincing since the movie has already told us Lucy has no "desire" any more and she and Officer Pierre Del Rio never share another moment of human connection. (Lucy also got into this mess in the first place because of a man, so perhaps the fact that she can now ruthlessly use a man to get ahead is meant to be another stage in her evolution.)

Besson does seem to have an agenda with Lucy, though it remains murky to the end. Once Lucy hits 100 percent, she has an out-of-time experience that culminates in a recreation of Michelangelo's The Creation of Adam, but with Lucy touching fingers with an ape that previous scenes have indicated is also called . . . Lucy (as in: a missing link in Darwinian evolution). It seems like a drug fever dream, but Freeman's character takes it all so seriously.

It seems Lucy is "simply" trying to say humanity can recreate itself with enough time. There is no particular logic for why Besson used a female character to make such a statement other than an early scene where she entices her male captors to come closer by spreading her legs. Johannson's Lucy was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, apparently due to a series of poor life choices, and as a character she's entirely replaceable.

It's too bad that so many female characters in movies still haven't achieved the level of personhood. In sci-fi, women can often take on roles and powers that in less extraordinary circumstances are reserved, fairly or not, for men. But in Lucy, the woman at the heart of the film is never given any agency despite her newfound abilities; she's at the mercy of some evolutionary imperative. It's hard not to wonder whether her fate would have been different if she'd been a man.

Caveat Spectator

Lucy is rated R for strong violence, disturbing images, and sexuality. The sexuality is limited to an early scene where Lucy is held captive and several clips of graphic animal copulation and live birth, but gory violence and drug use define the movie and are pervasive. Bags of drugs are forcibly inserted and removed from the stomachs of several characters. Gun fights result in multiple fatalities. A character's hands are stabbed. Lucy performs self-surgery, drives recklessly, and shoots many innocent and not-so-innocent people. Ultimately, any morality in the film is derived from a Darwinian standpoint.

Alicia Cohn is a regular contributor to Christianity Today's Her.meneutics and freelance writer based in Denver. She tweets @aliciacohn.

Our Rating
1½ Stars - Weak
Average Rating
(13 user ratings)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
R (For strong violence, disturbing images, and sexuality.)
Directed By
Luc Besson
Run Time
1 hour 29 minutes
Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Choi Min-sik
Theatre Release
July 25, 2014 by Universal Pictures
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