Lucy review: Of moksha, Scarlett Johansson and Korean drug dealers
When an action thriller that began with beautiful menace ends with a Morgan Freeman holding up a USB drive, it feels like a bit of an anti-climax.
There's a point in Lucy, when Scarlett Johansson who plays the eponymous hero of the film, begins seeing stars. Literally. Hopped up on a designer drug that has fired up her brain to work at almost 100 percent, Lucy cruises on a cosmic highway of knowledge. Time starts looping as she rushes back to eras that are beyond human history. She sees apes, trees, dinosaurs and, of course, stars. And two blue cells that judder towards each other, intent upon becoming one.
To many, this hurtling rush of images may seem just bizarre. If you've read up on the Hindu notion of moksha, however, it makes a little more sense. Lucy's brain is working at 100% — the rest of us use only 10% of our brain — and that means she's transcended the human. It's moksha as Hinduism sees it.
According to Hinduism, each living thing has a soul that is trapped in the life cycle and reincarnation. The point of all this reincarnation is to attain moksha, or liberation from the cycle of birth and death. One of the ways to achieve moksha is through the pursuit of knowledge, or the jnana marg. Using your intellect, you're able to distinguish between the essential and the ephemeral. Emotion stops clouding your understanding and you reach a dispassionate state of mind that allows you to focus on the cosmic, spiritual truth. In Luc Besson's new film, Lucy speeds down jnana marg and reaches moksha, dodging Korean drug dealers along way; all thanks to a new drug called CPH4.
There's a cheerful sassiness about Lucy when we first meet her -- her new boyfriend is trying to make Lucy deliver a suitcase for him and she's having none of it. Besson intercuts this scene with shots of animals being lured and hunted. It's a sophisticated bit of filmmaking that leaves the audience feeling terribly uneasy because we know that Lucy's boyfriend suddenly handcuffing her to the briefcase and forcing her to complete the delivery for him is not the worst thing that's going to happen to her. This is just the beginning of the hunt.
So Lucy, with briefcase cuffed to her wrist, goes into a plush hotel, clearly under duress. Enter: Korean gangsters. Exit: good cheer. The film's dead body count begins at this point and for the next 30 minutes, the corpses pile up and there's blood everywhere. As Lucy tries to make sense of what is happening, Besson finds a superb balance between the flamboyant excess of comic book violence and real, chilling menace.
It turns out that Lucy is one of five people who have been chosen to traffic a boutique drug called CPH4. It's a synthetic version of a chemical produced by pregnant women that enables foetuses to grow in the womb. Packets of CPH4 have been surgically inserted inside Lucy's and the other drug mules' stomachs. Things start going really haywire when Lucy is kidnapped. Her kidnappers beat her viciously, causing one of the packets to split, releasing a large amount of CPH4 into Lucy's system.
So far, so groovy.
Sadly for the kidnappers, excess CPH4 turns Lucy into superwoman. Instead of the usual 10 percent that humans use of their brains, Lucy's brain activity increases at a rapid pace. When she gets in touch with Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman), she's using 28 percent of her brain and is essentially a prettier version of Rajinikanth's Chitti in Robot. Her reading speed is lightning fast; she can x-ray people, and control electromagnetic waves. She can also turn her short blonde hair into long, brunette tresses. Basically, she's Magneto's worst nightmare.
Besson tries to keep two story lines at play simultaneously in Lucy. One is about drug trafficking. Lucy teams up with a Parisian cop to catch the other mules, which leads to a group of very angry Korean gangsters and lots of shooting and infrastructural damage.
The other story line is more central to Lucy. It is about the effect of knowledge upon us, physically and emotionally. Besson seems to be in agreement with Hinduism because Lucy follows the jnana marg quite diligently. As Lucy's brain activity increases, she becomes more and more clinical about everything happening around her. She's not uncaring, but dispassionate and detached — the Sanskrit word vairagya describes her quite neatly.
The more active Lucy's brain becomes, the more she can control the world around her. She becomes more and more detached. Time becomes inconsequential. It's all very similar to the possibilities suggested by ancient Hindu philosophers and mystics who believe the pursuit of the truth is an intellectual exercise and can lead one to moksha. The only difference is that the Hindu vision of jnana marg probably didn't include murderous Korean gangsters or a blonde woman in a short, skintight dress.
Net result: after a lot of drama, violence, a swelling orchestra and Lucy whooshing around cosmic truths, all that remains is a USB drive. A glittery one, one that puts the flash in flash drive. Presumably the non-glittery ones are for the rest of us with brains working at 10 percent.
In Her, Johansson was the disembodied voice of a super-intelligent operating system that discovers emotion. In Lucy, Johansson plays a human who becomes a machine because she discovers intelligence. Nothing Besson throws at her, from beating men up to psychic time travel, seems to be much of a challenge for Johansson. She's great fun to watch, even when the film is hurtling off the tracks of logic and into the bizarre.
The problem with Lucy is that Besson's suggestion that the unlocked intellect will turn us into superheroes doesn't feel entirely credible. The science he lays out in the film and what happens to Lucy feel a little out of sync. You could perhaps still, with a pinch of CPH4, believe Lucy can control everything from gravity to another person's musculature. However, when electric cables start shooting out of her and she travels back in time to touch digits with an ape like in AC /Creaci%C3%B3n_de_Ad%C3%A1m.jpg">Creation of Adam, it becomes difficult to take the film seriously.
Ultimately, Lucy attains moksha, which is great for her -- though potentially problematic for cellphone networks, considering how Lucy makes the cop's mobile phone sputter -- but not quite where you expect a story about drug mules to go. It's not just that the science and CPH4-powered moksha feel a little forced. When an action thriller that began with beautiful menace ends with a Morgan Freeman holding up a USB drive, it feels like a bit of an anti-climax.
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