Friday, August 1, 2014

I Loved Lucy (2014)

I typically have a problem with high-concept films that exposit to no end where action-driven storytelling would prove superior, and where lofty themes are self-inflated during stagnated scenes of weighty dramatic posture featuring characters standing around talking about what the story is about. Here, however, the continuing lectured academia concerning the potentially boundless possibilities of the untapped human cerebral cortex does not slow or interfere with the plot because, after the initial 'drug mule' setup, there really isn’t much plot at all; once our titular Lucy begins her chemical induced evolution towards the great beyond, the rest is merely a loose geographical narrative intent on rendezvousing with ("Hello, I’m") Morgan Freeman as Prof. Norman, a leading expert on the mysteries of the mind.

There are some additional details that involve French cops rounding up the other remaining bags of experimental narcotics, known as CPH4, trailed by some unhappy Taiwanese mobsters, but the feature film as a whole is one in a constant state of motion, pouring out of itself as a hyperkinetic montage-collage of ideas, imagery and monologues. Where other 2014 summer blockbusters like Days of Future Past, Edge of Tomorrow and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes pride themselves on clever narrative devices and strategic, chess-move characterization, Lucy has no such appetites. It feigns no sophistication in story structure, credible motivations or even internal logic, frankly. It’s not that kind of movie. It’s something...else—a cinematic brainstorm, alive and pulsating and, to be perfectly honest, downright fucking gonzo.

Equivalent to the film’s female protagonist, director Luc Besson seems to have (re)ingested his very own kind of super-crack directorial idiosyncrasies that charted his course throughout the 90s, of which Lucy likewise seems the accumulation. There’s the base circumstances of seedy, inner-city organized crime à la Le Femme Nikita and The Professional -- with automatic weaponry and slickly dressed henchmen -- a near fetishistic array of visual FX spectacle as seen in The Fifth Element and, from The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, the fate of Man finding itself at the mercy of a commoner Woman redefined by some supernatural awakening. But Lucy also achieves its own identity. Yes, it proceeds from the same general premise as 2011’s Limitless, but that movie by comparison was boring and, ironically, limited, capping the outcome of human mind powers in attempt to serve a more formulaic corporate thriller plotline, managing only to transform its protagonist from one kind of douche into a high rolling other.

Lucy is a different creature, one that goes all the way, spiraling more to the ambitions of Tree of Life, Ghost in the Shell and Akira yet with a notably breezier and more irreverent tone, where Besson’s eccentric visual timespan of Earth’s biological eons playfully informs immediate situations; from the opening sequence, juxtaposing 'wild kingdom' Serengeti footage with Lucy’s panicky misfortune into a world of drug smuggling. The events thereafter are bent on her increasing, brain expanding percentile from 20 to the unfathomable 100. And while she quickly assumes the skills and deadly persona of a femme fatale assassin, it’s a familiar genre trope that proves rather short-lived; Besson ultimately isn’t interested in that kind of movie either, which will likely come to the dismay of audiences who expected as much from the trailer. Moreover, it never shows much interest in becoming an X-Men type superhero adventure or, to be specific, that Lucy’s ability to defy matter and physics sooner than later exceed the limits needed in maintaining dramatic conflict, which has become a major point of criticism from various online article reviews and audiences in general. She undoubtedly becomes too powerful for anyone to pose her any significant threat, including the authorities on her tail and vengeful mob boss played with smug indifference by Oldboy’s Choi Min-Sik.

It is important, though, to remember that dramatic conflict is a convention, not a necessity. Tis true that the film lacks any real tension predicated on opposing objectives of equal match, let alone any kind of 'against the odds' underdog arc. But that, in essence, is the point. Lucy isn’t running nor fighting. She is evolving and her evolution in and of itself is the singular narrative force; inevitable, unstoppable. This in my opinion achieves a uniquely different kind of thrill where, in tandem with every other character in the film, the viewer is likewise swept along helplessly towards some great unknown. Besson even contorts what would be the more traditional action set-pieces to repeatedly illustrate this theme, the highlight of which being a brilliantly filmed, first-person car chase through Paris’ rush hour traffic with a telekinetic Lucy behind the wheel and her police detective tagalong, Del Rio (Amr Waked, looking dumbfounded) reduced to a mere passenger; their vehicle whizzing by-and-in-between countless others at super-fluid speed, thereby rendering the latter as variables of zero consequence.

Well into the third act this story momentum briefly plateaus for a one-way discourse whereby Lucy expounds before Norman and his summoned colleagues the film’s central philosophical conceit: that humankind’s reliance on science and mathematical laws are ultimately its limitation -- a kind of arbitrary model of an infinitely larger reality -- and that, in her own words, "Time is the only true unit of measure." Put into effect, Lucy’s ecumenical view manifests early on as both a total cellular-sensory awareness of the very Earth’s rotation and the memory of her own childhood, even down to the infant experience, which she recounts with deep feeling during a phone call to her mother, thus concluding the last instance of her recognizably human emotional state, and that by film’s climax grants her infinite access to all of spacetime. And a particularly gutsy climax it is, replete with one of Besson’s signature shootout extravaganzas matched (no, dwarfed) by Lucy’s seated, fourth dimensional journey into prehistory and then to the very outstretches of the omniverse. I won’t go into visual or conceptual detail, suffice to say, it all ends with Freeman being given a flash drive made of stars ...I shit you not!

So is this all just a load of dopey, pop-pseudo-philosophical nonsense? Maybe, probably, not really, I dunno. What cannot be denied is the film’s intellectual commitment, zany as it may be. Zanier the better, in fact. So many sci-fi yarns fostering profound meanings strive for theoretical authenticity and to be taken seriously whereas Lucy strives only for the sincerity of wonder itself, far less an essay than it is an anthem, impassioning audiences with an imagination for cosmic data hidden in the substance of all things before our very eyes. And I applaud Besson (also the sole writer) for his spirited sense of abandon in how he throws onus to the wind while likewise having the balls to take the premise to its ultimate conclusion.

The two lead stars punch in and preform dutifully. Freeman’s casting is no doubt utilitarian as his stock gravitas allows for much of the aforementioned lecture points to go down like smooth brandy. Still, the actor conveys genuine awe when needed and it makes for a nice twist to witness his sagely status humbled in the presence of the all-knowing. For her part, Scarlett Johansson’s Revlon glamor is in full swing and she sails comfortably in rounding out the third entry to her unofficial meta-human trilogy. The male filmmaker fixation with her sex symbology has marked an interesting mini-arc personification adjacent to her ongoing Black Widow gig, from Jonze’s husky gal-pal software voice to Glazer’s alien man-eater, the latter of whom our Lucy mirrors in gaudy, streetwalking fashion, trading in a fur coat for leopard print and dying the same hairstyle it’s polar opposite, raven to platinum blonde. If nothing else, Johansson has grown more surefooted as a marquee name and never falters in narrowing a flighty Lucy of the first act into the cerebral sorceress of the final.

On to technical matters, this marks Besson’s first foray into shooting digital. Reteaming with DP Thierry Arbogast, the duo once again frames in 2.35:1 but this time trading in their usual anamorphic scope for the open flat look of a spherical lens. The resulting image sheds the poetically warped distortion of Besson’s symmetrical, laterally wide compositions for more titan-rectangular imagery, especially in its many close-ups. Lucy is a sharp, clean lined and colorfully vibrant movie. The crux of its CGI design whets the psychotropic lightshow of our heroine’s metamorphosis along with her capacity to accelerate to the farthest realms of existence. Altogether the production value easily impresses, particularly when considering its comparatively trim $40 million budget amidst a summer of triple digit-plus gargantuas. This brings up one last quality I think sets the movie apart from the general blockbuster fare: it’s not a tent-pole release. There is no feasible room for a sequel, let alone a franchise, which, for a refreshing change, spares audiences the tedium filler of half-assed backstory mythology or bridging new characters or future plotline setups. Lucy is a standalone. When it ends, it ends.


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