Extracting the core ideas from Lucy (2014)

Lucy_(2014_film)_poster

Lucy, in which Black Window appears in a Luc Besson movie. While we clearly expect lots of ass-kicking and general badassery, most reviews seem to agree that the sci-fi/philosophy elements in the story falls flat, according to Badassdigest, Flickfilosopher, io9, among several others.

Nevertheless, I still think the core idea is somewhat interesting and full of potential – think about it: We have a story about an average person who gets increasingly great powers through the course of the story. On one hand achieving powers and knowledge that humanity have been striving for, while simultaneously losing her own humanity. Meanwhile she is being chased by gang members, providing opportunities for amazing action scenes.

So here’s our theoretical sandbox: We have the core concept, with Scarlett Johansson in a Luc Besson movie, about an average person gaining increasingly omnipotent powers. Having learned the lessons from the reviews that point out the bad parts of the movie, what would we want from a movie like Lucy, which we never got? Let’s take a stab at this. Think of this as a reeeeaaaally long user feedback. [Spoiler warning: many plot details will be discussed]

Remove that “Humans only use 10% of their brains” bullshit; use an alternative fictional explanation

Yes, it’s a myth. Everyone got hung up on this point. This being the internet age, a simple Google search gave everyone the ammunition and target to dismiss the movie outright.

It’s pretty likely that all these creates a bad impression to potential audiences, priming everyone to think that this movie is stupid for relying on a long-debunked myth.

If we think about the actual events that happened in the movie, its core concept itself does not fully require this myth. It is possible to tell the story of Lucy while completely avoiding any mention of this brain myth bullshit. How?

First, we consider the plot requirements. Let’s assume the story requires Lucy to have increasingly powerful superhuman abilities. Towards the end she is practically omnipotent. Lucy’s abilities, as shown in the movie, isn’t really brain-related after all – just high intelligence and the ability to alter reality. We can simply have a completely fictional, yet functional explanation. Say that the drug causes Lucy’s neurons to form special connections to <insert science jargon here. Suggestions: unknown quantum field, higher dimensions, superstrings>.

not_heisenberg_meth

Magic fairy dust/Heisenberg meth/Unicorn kidney stones

My point is, if her powers are grounded on something fully fictional, then the audience will understand this as a plot device and concentrate on the rest of the story. Suspension of disbelief is not strained because of the tacit understanding that her powers had to come from somewhere within the logic of the movie’s universe. What probably happened instead was people thinking that the entire movie is stupid because Luc Besson is duped by a debunked myth, and everything that followed could not be taken seriously.

After all, we are pretty okay with superpowered characters whose abilities are not grounded in reality, like Hulk, Superman, X-Men, or, perhaps the closest comic-book analog to Lucy, Dr. Manhattan. I don’t remember seeing any Facebook or Twitter comments saying how stupid the premise was when The Avengers came out.

(However, from reading the production notes of the movie, it seems that the 10% brain myth was the original inspiration of the story, and the notes states that Besson wanted the story to be “grounded in scientific fact”, and that he has worked with several scientists to write the script. So we can’t blame Besson for not doing his research. Personally, I felt that the story that grew out the original inspiration was far more interesting, hence this whole article.)

Get to know pre-powers Lucy!

I felt like I never really gotten to know who was Lucy as a character. Apparently she likes to party and has an exam coming up soon. (Is she a university student in Taiwan?) And precisely that much information is conveyed in a 5 minute conversation which contains random flashbacks of her partying.

Again, according to the production notes, Lucy was supposed to be an “average girl”, which was quickly set up in that opening 5 minute scene. But it kinda felt that she was so generic that I wasn’t able to empathise with Lucy, in the sense that as human beings, we care more about people we know than for random bystanders. Which, of course, we want the audience to care about what happens to the protagonist.

The scene where she first gets into trouble with the crime boss was tense as hell, perhaps sold effectively by Johansson’s acting. I could imagine that the scene would pack a greater punch if we spent a bit of time getting to know Lucy first. Probably start the movie the night before, let us see how she parties and treats other people.

lucy-2014-movie-screenshot-4

That was a memorable villain intro…

Also, if the movie was about Lucy losing her humanity, then at least an earlier pre-powers Lucy party scene would show us what “average girl” Lucy would be like, so that we can see a contrast against the actions of superpowered Lucy.

There was a scene where she shot a random taxi driver, which happened just after she got her powers. At 20% brain capacity, we would assume that there’s still mostly “average girl” Lucy taking action, right? Is “average” pre-powers Lucy actually murderous sociopath?

Scenes like this made it hard to sympathise with her, which brings me to my next point.

Make us sympathise with Lucy first, before having her lose her humanity

Theres a scene where Lucy tears up when calling her mother and talking about her childhood. Emotional scene, yes. And again, good acting by ScarJo. But how emotional can it get when this happened just five minutes after she murdered a random hospital patient?

According to the movie, Lucy, with her super intelligence read the patient’s X-rays and states that the patient was going to die anyway. So does that justify her shooting the patient immediately? Was her act of killing the patient on the spot a form of euthanasia? Does knowing the ultimate fate of a person allows us to control/end the person’s life? Those are actually interesting questions and could be explored in the movie. But they played the scene like it was a quick way advance to the part where the doctors provide some exposition about the drug, and to the next scene where she calls her mother. A wasted opportunity, I would say.

And suppose the theme of the story was how she loses her humanity. It could be argued that Lucy nonchalantly killing a doomed patient was a sign of her omnipotence growing far beyond the scope of humanity – in the same way we don’t bat an eye if we stepped on an ant. (Like Loki says, “An ant has no quarrel with a boot”.) If we need to have a scene of Lucy killing people like that, it had to be placed nearer the end of the story, when she her powers have grown much, much stronger as to be godlike. The hospital scene happened just a few minutes after she gotten her powers. That’s my other problem with the movie – Lucy became omnipotent a bit too quickly.

I’m pretty sure that the loss of Lucy’s humanity is one of the main themes of the movie. There was a scene where she kissed the French police officer supposedly “as a reminder”. Plus, towards the end, while she has stopped caring about individual human beings (by bluntly recalling a death of a scientist’ daughter as a demonstration of her powers), she still cares about humanity as a whole, storing her knowledge into some weird thumb drive to pass on to Morgan Freeman. It can be seen that her scope of thinking has expanded far beyond human individuals; in the same way we generally care about what happens to ourselves, but we don’t really care about the individual cells on our body. Again, I wished they explored this a bit more.

Add more scenes showing Lucy learning to use her powers

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The io9 review probably holds the key for making Lucy a great movie that I would enjoy: It should be treated like a superhero origin story. Now the reason why we like superhero origin stories is that they are a form of indulgent fantasies. The usually start with characters with average traits (see, “average girl” Lucy?) gaining powers to overcome impossible challenges.

In Spider-man, Peter Parker was bullied in school. Wasn’t it satisfying to see Peter turning the tables on the bully after he got his powers? It is an indulgent fantasy because most of us know someone or personally have been bullied for being physically weaker. Overpowering a physically stronger opponent as a bully victim surely feels like an impossible challenge indeed, and this is why Peter’s triumph over the bully felt satisfying.

In Lucy, the analog of the bully scene was where she was sexually assaulted as a catalyst that led to her getting her powers. Now, we know that rape threats are an overused sexist trope, but it happened in Lucy’s movie anyway. Now since we are stuck with the trope, from a narrative standpoint, what is the appropriate way to get out of it? We could at least see Lucy overpowers the attempted rapist in some brutally triumphant way, but that didn’t happen. Somehow she instantly knows how to use her powers and breezily kills her captors nonchalantly, as if they were ants under Loki’s boot. There was no climax to resolve the sexual assault subplot, so why put it there in the first place? The movie could have been much less objectifying if the bad guys were just shown beating her up rather than trying to sexually assault her (which was what Guardians of the Galaxy did with Gamora).

Now if we could instead see Lucy struggling and learning to use her powers, perhaps see her observing the prison cell, using her newly-gained super intelligence to outsmart her captors, wouldn’t that be more fun and interesting?

Take the video game template

Speaking of gradually progressing superpowers, gamers experience that all the time. So perhaps Lucy could have followed part of a video game template to have a more satisfying experience. Game developers have been doing this all the time, perfecting the Pavlovian-rewards/achievements psychology formula for years.

Theres a reason why we are given crappy weapons and no advantages at the beginning of every game. Like anything else in life, we had to slog through the difficulties to fully enjoy the sweet parts. If we were just given the best weapons and infinite ammo at the start of the game, it would be boring. But that’s precisely what happened in Lucy: she never really experienced any real challenges after she gained her powers. So, story-wise, there wasn’t any tension for the character from that point onward. We know she is going to win every fight, so there isn’t much excitement for the story anymore.

So the video game template for Lucy would perhaps to let her struggle a little bit, while she learns to use her abilities. Avoid letting her win fights by hand-waving (literally!), and save that part for the end. Let her get into physical fights and overcoming her opponent that way – this is again human nature, we react viscerally to physical punches and fights probably because it’s rooted deep in our evolution, and many of us do get into fights as kids.

Speaking of physical fights…

More fight scenes!

We have Scarlett Johansson (who was Black Widow in the Marvel movies) in a Luc Besson movie, how could we not get any fight scenes?! Or perhaps a tense shootout? All we had was the belt-pulling takedown during her escape, then quickly shooting the others who were off-guard, seated at a table. For the rest of the movie, it was mostly her walking down corridors holding guns and looking badass, without actually having to use them much.

lucy-trailer-hd-scarlett-johansson

Conclusion: What did I want out of a sci-fi movie directed by Luc Besson starring Black Widow?

Honestly, the Luc Besson movies I really enjoyed were just straightforward action movies where we rooted for the hero to defeat evil bad guys – The Professional, Fifth Element, Taken. Those movies had some memorable idea that defined the character. The Professional was about a hitman who inadvertently bonds with a young girl. The Fifth Element had Leeloo, and her multipass. Everyone has seen this Liam Neeson meme, and it was thanks to Taken.

Liam-Neeson-is-the-BEST

In truth, I really should give Besson the credit for having the guts to be inspired by some concept and trying to tell a story from it. It’s a quality that is sadly lacking in many Hollywood films nowadays (scowls at Michael Bay). In the end, I sort of liked Lucy after all, for Johansson’s performance and the Dr. Manhattan-type character concept. If anything, Lucy was a fun movie after all, for the comedic moments given by her powers, and for the glimpses of these interesting ideas, which I only hoped to be explored more. (Hey, how about a TV series spinoff?)

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