The trippiness, the nudge regarding unused powers, regarding vision, regarding the potential of our minds, are the best parts of Lucy.
Lucy, directed by Luc Bresson, starring Scarlett Johansson. At the Capitol Cinema, Arlington, Apple Cinemas, Cambridge
By Harvey Blume
A friend sent me a link to a video of Diana Krall in concert.
I responded that I loved the way she folded both her singing and playing into the energy of the ensemble.
That reminded me I had just thought something similar about Scarlett Johansson, after seeing her today in Lucy . Oh, a lot of this film is been-there done-it action stuff, and forget the pseudo-brain science, and when will filmmakers remember that pterodactyls and hominids really did not inhabit this planet at the same time?
That’s the dumb part, and there’s enough of it. Then there is the part about knowledge. Lucy — the name the Johansson character takes from our primate ancestor — is force-fed a drug that tickles her neurons. It gives her power over mind, matter and, finally, when those brain cells amp up to 100 percent of their potential, time itself. The trippiness, the nudge regarding unused powers, regarding vision, regarding the potential of our minds, are the best parts of Lucy. They may remind some viewers of long-ago unregretted acid trips.
The point I started with, though, is that Johansson blends into such roles really well. In Her, she’s not even visible; she’s just the voice of a computer operating system, but this voice is physical, bodily. You feel it and her; hearing becomes a kind of seeing.
The third entry in the current Johansson trilogy is Under The Skin, which I liked both despite and because of its obliqueness. It surprised me often, made me sit up and watch closely just when I was wondering if this film would bother to make some sense already. Under The Skin is almost entirely silent, for one thing, and doesn’t hesitate to leave narrative dots unconnected. It accentuates some of the best ways the visual medium of film can work.
In Under Her Skin Johansson plays an alien. In his writings E. O. Wilson talks about how much effort a species must devote to detecting aliens. Wilson’s focus is on ants, of course, his specialty — he was not renowned as a myrmecologist (ant scientist) for nothing — and how despite all precautions ants are in danger of being fooled: a gargantuan beetle can disguise itself with ant odor (ants count on scent more than vision) and have its way with an ant colony.
In Under Her Skin, Johansson dissolves people, the men she seduces. They are drowned in a sort of squid black ink, we don’t know why. It’s convenient to peg this as yet another vampire movie but to do so is to trivialize it.
One of Johansson’s would-be victims has a terrible facial deformity, clinically known as Neurofibromatosis. He was cast from a community of people with this disorder and helped the director understand how someone like him might get and accept an offer for a ride to the supermarket, as happens when he is picked up by Johansson.
As an alien herself, Johansson doesn’t detect and isn’t disturbed by this man’s distance from the norm. If anything, her imperturbability disturbs him. But something about this interaction does get under her skin. She releases him — we see him running naked through the woods — and begins to unravel.
The contrast I was going to make is with Jennifer Lawrence, another actress with wide range. But Lawrence doesn’t melt into roles; she explodes out of them. I can’t imagine Lawrence playing Lucy anymore than I can imagine Johansson starring in, say, The Hunger Games.
It’s worth mentioning that Luc Besson, who directed Lucy, also directed La Femme Nikita, which is to be sharply distinguished from seriously worse American adaptations, and also The Fifth Element. In these movies, women play political cum neurological cum cosmic connective tissue.
Harvey Blume is an author — Ota Benga: The Pygmy At The Zoo — who has published essays, reviews, and interviews widely, in The New York Times, Boston Globe, Agni, The American Prospect, and The Forward, among other venues. His blog in progress, which will archive that material and be a platform for new, is here. He contributes regularly to The Arts Fuse and wants to help it continue to grow into a critical voice to be reckoned with.