Here’s an idea for an article: The Tree of Life (2011) is the most influential film of the past decade. There’s quite a strong case to be made. Everything from car adverts to Hollywood blockbusters seems to have a touch of the Terrence Malick. They all span from cornfield to cosmos, from ant-hill to apocalypse, while characters breathe epigrams at each other about love and beauty and rebirth. This was true of last year’s Gravity and Man of Steel. It also looks true of Christopher Nolan’s forthcoming Interstellar. Just find a few more examples, work them into 1,000 words, and I’m sure The Spectator will pay a couple of hundred quid for it.
The reason I mention this is Luc Besson’s latest movie, Lucy. At last, we have a straight-up Tree of Life action thriller – ‘Tree Hard’. You might have heard about its plot already. This is the one where Scarlett Johansson, as the eponymous Lucy, is stitched up with a super-drug that then leaks into her bloodstream and gives her access to the 90 per cent of her brain that we humans tend to leave untrammelled — apparently, although this may be dodgy science. But forget about that for a second, and just marvel at all the Malick in this film. Its first line is ‘Life was given to us a billion years ago’ and, from there, it gives us dinosaurs and the Big Bang. Just like The Tree of Life did.
This isn’t to say that Besson is simply plagiarising that wonderful genius Terrence. In truth, Lucy feels like a natural path for him to take. His films — whether it’s those he has directed, such as Léon (1994), or those he has written, such as Taken (2008) — have always had an internationalist bent. He enjoys placing foreign characters in foreign countries. So this collage of pyramids and savannahs, of cityscapes and supernovae, plays like an extension of that. For Besson, there are no borders.
Ugh. I’m starting to get pretentious, when that’s generally not what Lucy is about. What Besson does brilliantly is alchemise all of these images and concerns into 90 minutes of fun, popcorn cinema. One of the film’s earliest scenes is a case in point. We’re a few minutes in, and Lucy has had a briefcase full of drugs handcuffed to her wrist, her new boyfriend shot, and now she’s sat opposite a blood-spattered Korean mob boss (Choi Min-sik, who was the lead in the original Oldboy) in a Taiwanese skyscraper, with a translator placed between them on speakerphone. I’m sure this is saying something about dislocation and communication, but it’s also a good, old-fashioned suspense scene. What is the gangster’s face saying in the seconds before his words are translated? Whoa, what if the translator gets something wrong?
That scene is also a demonstration of Lucy’s best asset: its actors. In those few tense minutes, Johansson establishes a strong contrast with what her character will become. Her Lucy starts off as easy prey for the predators — a girl abroad with her nail varnish all chipped. Soon after, once the drugs begin to take hold, she’s top of the food chain. Intertitles count up the brainpower she gains access to: 20 per cent, 30 per cent, 40 per cent …but, really, it’s a countdown for her humanity. The smarter and stronger she becomes, the less she’s like the rest of us. It’s the opposite of what Johansson’s alien character went through in this year’s Under the Skin.
To its credit, Lucy doesn’t shy away from making its main character inhuman. At one point she just shoots a man on an operating table because she needs surgery herself and because, unlike the doctors, she can see that he would have died anyway. But this is also the main problem with the movie. As Lucy becomes more like a god, able to control mobile-phone signals and people alike, the shoot-outs and car chases also become more pointless. There’s even less jeopardy than in your average superhero film. It remains pretty fun, though.
I’ve just thought of something else that Lucy reminds me of: Robert Heinlein’s novel Stranger in a Strange Land. That’s also about a human who is beyond human in that he has telekinetic powers. And didn’t it get its title from a passage in the Bible? From Malick to Besson to Heinlein to the Old Testament, I’m starting to see the beatific connections that exist between all things. Must have taken some of that drug myself. Excuse me while I go recreate the universe.