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‘Lucy’ and Scarlett Johansson can’t follow through on intriguing premise

I haven’t seen every movie released this year, so I can’t say with certainty that Lucy is the worst movie of 2014. What I can say is that it’s probably the worst movie that I’ve seen this year.

I’m sure there have actually been worse films produced this year, with no coherent story or directing talent behind the camera, and actors who either simply can’t act or whose paycheck motivations are entirely apparent in their performances. Then there are movies that are “bad” because they don’t follow through on expectations and squander huge opportunities, such as The Amazing Spider-Man 2 or A Million Ways to Die in the West.

So where does Lucy fit onto that spectrum? Well, probably more toward the “failure to follow through on expectations” end. As you would expect if you’re familiar with his work, Luc Besson has made a slick, great-looking film. The gunfights and car chases are impressive. The action is fast and kinetic. But Besson’s style tries to obscure the reality that there is just not much to his movie.

We get some masterful editing early on in the film, as Besson cuts quickly between what’s happening in the story and similar situations occurring in nature, such as predators attacking defenseless prey. Just in case you didn’t get the idea of what was happening when Taiwanese gangsters approach Scarlett Johansson and take her upstairs to meet a ruthless drug lord.

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Perhaps the biggest reason Lucy ultimately feels disappointing is that this early part of the film is so tense and compelling. We meet Johansson’s title character as she’s studying overseas in Taiwan. Lucy is with a guy she apparently met at a club and is kind of dating, but really just wants to go home and get some sleep. But the guy wants her to deliver a strange briefcase for him. And when Lucy refuses, he handcuffs her to the case and forces her to do his dirty work.

From there, it becomes quickly apparent that poor Lucy has been pulled into a situation that puts her life in danger. With no escape possible, she’s made to work as a drug mule. And she doesn’t have a choice in the matter because she’s been knocked out, sliced open and had a (rather large) packet of drugs stuffed into her abdomen.

After making her delivery, Lucy is beaten up and the drug packet inside her ruptures, releasing the chemicals into her system and changing the physiology of her brain. It’s basically the most warped superhero origin story ever.

This formerly fun-seeking college student can now tap into parts of her brain function that humans don’t typically use. The commonly held myth is that we only use 10 percent of our brain function, but Lucy’s capacity is steadily growing. Besson uses that growth to title chapters in the story: “20 percent,” “40 percent,” “70 percent” and so on. Therein lies the inherent suspense of the story: What is going to happen to Lucy when she reaches 100 percent brain function? What will she become?

Is this whole thing really a prequel to Her?

Morgan Freeman’s Professor Norman is the scientist who can supposedly help Lucy along the way as her abilities develop. But since this is completely uncharted scientific territory, Norman can only really guess as to what might happen next.

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Besson could presumably use the character for exposition, explaining what traits Lucy might eventually display. Instead, he mostly serves to look on in astonishment as Lucy becomes a higher form of human being. And “I don’t know” sounds more impressive and ominous when said with Freeman’s voice.

Evolving into a higher form of consciousness is a fascinating premise, one that’s also been explored in movies such as 2011′s Limitless and this year’s Transcendence. I confess I haven’t seen either of those, so have no idea as to how far each filmmaker took the concept. Ultimately, the possibilities have to serve the story.

Yet Besson really doesn’t do much with the idea in Lucy. Basically, Lucy’s boosted brain function allows her to use guns and knives really well, demonstrate telekinesis, see wavelengths (such as cell phone connections) that the typical human eye can’t process, and talk more robotically as the film progresses because she’s moved way past us now and has far too many other things to think about.

But the story has to go somewhere. Lucy has to grow into something else. Where both story and character eventually go just doesn’t feel that satisfying, almost as if Besson just said, “Well, I don’t know either, and we have nowhere else to go, so let’s just do this.” Oh, and more quick cuts, shootouts and car chases. You know — add one more huge shootout, just to be sure.

It just all eventually becomes senseless, and because of that, Lucy can’t follow through on its promise. It also does nothing to disprove the belief that Johansson isn’t a very good actress. Even if she’s supposed to act less human as her brain evolves, she never comes across as someone slowly losing her soul. She’s just blinking less and talking slower.

I also thought this movie might represent the next stage in Johansson’s transformation into an action star. She was pretty damn good in Captain America: The Winter Soldier earlier this year, showing wit, charm and vulnerability. But there’s a big difference between playing Black Widow alongside the Avengers and carrying a movie by herself. Especially when Besson gives her so little to work with in his script.

Maybe another actor could have made this movie more compelling, but I’m having difficulty thinking of who that might be. Maybe a shot of those super drugs Lucy involuntarily took could help me with that.

Ian Casselberry

About Ian Casselberry

Ian is a columnist for The Outside Corner and the editor of The AP Party. He has written for Yahoo! Sports, MLive.com, Bleacher Report and SB Nation, and provides analysis for several sports talk radio shows each week. He currently lives in Asheville, NC.

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