Blockbuster Talk: Scarlett Johansson is All-Powerful, But ‘Lucy’ Still Has Some ’Splainin to Do

Universal Pictures

This summer, two Grantlanders will gather to discuss the weekend’s mega-franchise, counterprogramming comedy, or teen weepie to consider truth, spoilers (!), and the Hollywood way. This week: Wesley Morris and Molly Lambert discuss Luc Besson and Scarlett Johansson’s gonzo brain game, Lucy.

Molly Lambert: OK, so Lucy was bonkers. And with a few major reservations, I thought it was great. I was very skeptical beforehand! I went into this movie a Scully and came out a full-blown Mulder. I have always wanted a sci-fi action movie about a woman gradually becoming a brain in a jar (or in this case, a zip drive). I love a high-concept science fiction movie that has a sense of humor about itself, which they rarely do! And it clocks in at the perfect length of 90 minutes, unheard of for philosophical sci-fi films, which usually tend to be bloated. Lucy was brisk, it was silly, it was awesome, and it is still making me think. As for the problems? My issues are not with the junk science, all of which I enjoyed. I squirmed hardest about the racism.

Of all the logic holes in the movie, what bothered me most was the idea of two white girls living in Taipei who don’t speak or read Chinese and are very openly ignorant about it. And then there’s the fact that the drug ring didn’t get subtitles, except toward the end when they suddenly did? It reminded me of Spring Breakers, in that I would think this movie was perfect were it not for the whole clueless racism aspect that tainted the proceedings. The first part of the movie felt like Lost in Translation 2, with its beautiful shots of the Taipei cityscape. It’s too bad, because otherwise I would just be all in on Lucy. I almost am!

Wesley Morris: Hi, Molly. It’s right of you bring up the movie’s use of Taipei as a backdrop. In all those well-done time-lapse montages of life operating at 10 percent of brain capacity, Besson presents it as this place of forward-moving vacuity. And relocating Johansson there does give you a case of the Lost in Translations, which is when a director goes all the way to a foreign country first to marvel at it and then to shrug at and possibly mock it. Besson’s film goes so fast that a lot of the movie whizzes by, just not enough.

Jessica Forde/Universal Pictures

To be fair, though, in his movies Paris is much more of a freak show than Taipei is in this film. He’s a crude, reckless entertainer with a heart, and access to at least 9 or 10 percent of his brain. We’ve been calling this movie different versions of “stupid,” and it’s not unfair, but you have to be smart to willfully misconstrue science to such a loony degree. Plus: No one does old-fashioned action sequences as good Besson. No one flirts this much with offensiveness, ideas, and state-of-the-art stunt craft and still winds up with 90 minutes of kitsch. He knows we know how to have fun with movies. He doesn’t have to be smart anymore. He just has to be ridiculous about the offensiveness and the ideas so that when Morgan Freeman holds up that USB drive at the end, you can stand up and say, “Mission accomplished, Luc.” 

By the way, Lucy came in a strong first at the North American box office, way ahead of Hercules. Let’s talk about why this is good news, though perhaps not for the Rock. Dwayne Johnson really needed a hit, but he also really needed to have that hit be him in Hercules. Scarlett Johansson has been the singular face of Lucy — there it is, postered all over my subway station. Lucy’s not being sold as “from the makers of Taken.” It’s being sold as a movie in which Scarlett Johansson shoots a lot of guys. This turns out to be only half the story since she also turns into a zombie in the second half, but who cares! 

Universal opened this movie opposite the Rock and Brett Ratner and won. We can talk about how Johansson is the new Angelina Jolie, but that doesn’t interest me. Jolie has, for now, given up on this sort of action movie, and has made an astonishingly lucrative reinvestment in exploring the idea of her stardom. Johansson can do much more than what Besson has lovingly asked her to do — and has. But I think we’ve been primed by these Avengers movies to crave seeing a female star carry one of these blockbusters on her own, while also using the ambit of her womanliness to do so. We want a Black Widow movie. Period. I don’t know how Hollywood will interpret Lucy’s box office performance, but despite the apparent fizzling of Sex Tape (by all means, fizzle!), the audience exists for female stars fronting summer blockbusters of different stripes.

Meanwhile, the mehs that greeted Hercules do suggest a shift at least away from automatic allegiance to big male stars. Audiences really like Johnson in cars and comedies, so unless they’re remaking Smokey and the Bandit, he needs to stay away from lines like, “I. Am. Herculeeeeeeze.” Lucy just looked like more fun, and so more people wanted to see it. Hercules looked like something we saw 13 years ago. Johansson is reaching her talent’s apogee and now, perhaps, the height of her bankability. It feels increasingly rare for a star to be very good and very popular at the same time. Or for the movies to showcase what’s great about an actor and also be a hit. She might be there, at 29. Am I crazy, Molly? Don’t you think this is what’s gonna let Johansson make that Nico passion project or whatever it is she’s been desperate to do?
Lambert: Oh my god, a ScarJo-as-Nico movie is such a great idea. She could really explore the untouchable iciness that’s become one of her many calling cards. Maybe that is the perfect reason for her to reunite with Sofia Coppola?

With regard to this movie being “stupid”: Maybe I’m stupid, but I just don’t agree. The obvious comparison point is Inception, which took a fun concept and turned it into a leaden, dull movie that paraded itself as both “smart” and “fun” but was ultimately neither. Inception is a dumb movie that takes itself seriously. Lucy is a smart movie that doesn’t take itself seriously at all, which is what makes it so smart! Though there are some potentially universe-swallowing plot holes. She does a Bond villain move on the movie’s drug lord Bond villain, which is to injure him in a violent way but not stick around to make sure he dies.

Lucy is a big-budget B movie, but in a totally different way from the Star Wars pulp serial throwback model that superhero movies almost all still follow. Lucy isn’t afraid to be totally weird (and totally French). I hadn’t been checking for Luc Besson recently, but this did a great job of reminding me why I ever had been. I took French in high school primarily because we got to watch La Femme Nikita in class. Lucy also kept bringing Run Lola Run to mind, a great trendsetting movie that didn’t actually touch off the narrative revolution it promised. Maybe this means it did!

Don’t cry for the Rock. He’ll make a ton of Hercules bank overseas. Although naturally I hope he’ll do more Pain & Gain–type character stuff, because I love him and that movie. Plus, he already starred in a fascinating philosophical weirdo sci-fi action cult movie. It’s just that his was an underappreciated little gem called Southland Tales.

Morris: We agree on the delusional depth of Inception, the stealth staying power of Run Lola Run, and the general marvelousness of Dwayne Johnson. But please, don’t get me started about Southland Tales! Wait. Too late! I wish Richard Kelly and Woody Allen would trade prolificness. That movie still feels as if it were on to something we’ve yet to realize. It still feels like its vision is hatching. Lucy doesn’t, really. Besson doesn’t really know what he’s saying about intelligence and usefulness — or maybe I wish he were saying it louder or more clearly. He’s not wondering about man and productivity and wastefulness. He’s certain that we’re on the wrong path. But had these drugs not wound up in the abdomens of human mules, where, really, would they have gone? Scarlett Johannson seems quite a reasonable end, but, look, I just feel like there had to be a better way to make a woman the savior of man than by turning her into a kind of machine-server whose soul lives, where, in the cloud? But you’re also right about this being a B movie — is there any other kind with Besson? I’m looking forward to the pieces decrying/admiring the film’s science.

But I’m also curious about what you make of this current idea of Johansson — and Johansson’s interest in the idea — of being conflated with technology and otherworldliness. Feels like a metaphor for desirability, intelligence, fame, male perception (or fear???) of women. These three recent movies — HerUnder the Skin, Lucy — are intrigued by Johansson in the vein similar to how Jean-Luc Godard deployed Brigitte Bardot and Anna Karina, as tools to frustrate expectation. Johansson’s a great star for that kind of loaded opacity. I just think she’s done enough of this and that she’s so good in Lucy‘s first half, with, yes, her Don Jon accent, that it bummed me out to see her take leave of herself in the name of action. Of course, Johansson is now actress enough to put some emotion into the taking-leave. That phone call to her mother, who talks about the breast milk, was strange and sideways (formally, a lot of the movie is refreshingly sideways) and actually moving. I didn’t mind Johansson levitating dudes to the ceiling, but I’d have liked to see a little more stuff like that phone call.

Jessica Forde/Universal Pictures

Lambert: I liked when she talked to her mom, which reminded me of Gravity, another big female-led sci-fi hit (that ScarJo was originally attached to). It’s funny you mentioned Anna Karina and Godard, because I thought about Godard more than once — Lucy’s use of title cards, its wildlife footage, and the general sense of playfulness maintained while attacking weighty themes — during the movie. I thought it actually landed a lot of its philosophical punches, because I am still thinking about them today and imagine I will be for quite some time. Her was a movie about a computer turning into a woman. Lucy is a movie about a woman turning into a computer. That was the aspect I found fascinating. The smarter Lucy got, the more she seemed to advance on the autism spectrum. Dolphins (which the film uses as an example of an animal with more command over their brains) are known for being emotional and empathetic, which is why they are our closest intellectual brethren in the animal kingdom, so it didn’t add up that more intelligence would equal fewer emotions for Lucy. I happen to disagree with scientists like Simon Baron-Cohen, who think autism is an “extreme male brain.” Intelligence doesn’t negatively correlate with emotionality.

But again, none of this really bothered me. There were so many things invoked that I am interested in individually: smart drugs, posthumanism, dolphin intelligence, the death drive, the childhood fantasy instilled in me by Roald Dahl’s Matilda that if you just became smart enough you could move things with your mind. Instead of a turgid contemplation of these serious ideas, they are delivered in the envelope of an Enter the Void candy-painted, zonked-out Hong Kong action-movie fantasia.

I totally agree with you about Scarlett playing into the sort of superhuman power that she is ascribed by heterosexual male directors. I think Scarlett is knowingly toying with her image as a bombshell, because she understands that the image is something completely separate from her real self. That Rita Hayworth quote, “Men fell in love with Gilda, but they wake up with me,” comes to mind. Over the course of Lucy we literally watch her famous corpus melt away until it’s nothing but information. Everyone has had the fantasy of transcending their physical body to become an immortal spacelord that lives on in a cosmic zip drive, right?

I imagine that Johansson, whose body is constantly scrutinized and talked about like it’s a thing that doesn’t belong to her, and who had private nude photos hacked and leaked to the whole world, can probably relate. She called out a reporter during an Avengers press conference for asking her questions about her workout routine while her male costars got questions about their performances. Her body’s aggressive femininity is a double-edged sword. It gets attention, but it often gets all the attention. I remember way back when Scarlett was so great in the incredible Ghost World that there was a brief window when the focus was on her acting, right before it became legal to talk about her body. She’s now deconstructing the focus on her body, which on a macro level deconstructs the historical focus by male directors on idealized female bodies. She went as far as she possibly could into roles that fetishized her curves; now she’s playing characters in which her body is a Medusa-like super-weapon (Under the Skin), literally nonexistent (Her), and now a transmutating, information-absorbing blob of dark matter.

It’s not a coincidence that Scarlett has seemingly become more aggressive about choosing good projects for herself as she nears 30. Around 30 (let’s say, 27) is also when it really kicks in that you and everyone you know is going to die, that even the most perfect, physically strong bodies will eventually weaken and die, and that there is no escaping your human destiny as worm food. Time to upload yourself onto a separate hard drive! Thirty is also the age when ingenue roles typically dry up and actresses start getting offered roles as wives and moms. Scarlett, like Angelina, wants meatier roles than that, and like Bette Davis before them they’re in an unusual position of power for a female star to control what types of roles they take. Lucy is about a powerless woman finding control through sudden-death circumstances — not only over her own life, but the entire universe (and/or studio system?) and possibly beyond that.


Again, I was really only squicked out by the fact that Lucy had to achieve her power and control by killing a lot of nameless Asian men. It was reminiscent of the colonialist violence of Bond movies, which relies on the audience’s discomfort with the foreign. It also seemed like a strange move in a Hollywood economy that is increasingly dependent on Chinese box office sales. The great Korean actor Choi Min-sik, who plays Lucy’s big bad, is relatively wasted and doesn’t get subtitles. Egyptian actor Amr Waked gets to play the role that a woman would traditionally get to, that of the person who follows a more dynamic character around on their quest and waits to get kissed. Even Morgan Freeman, the co-lead, is basically a background blip on Lucy’s journey to the stars.

But Lucy also asks a lot of cosmic philosophical questions while maintaining extremely high popcorn value. It’s not perfect, but its ambition is inspiring, and for me, it was a perfect mix of high and low. The movie even implied that fire was discovered by a Lucy (the Neanderthal) and thereby suggested that the entire history of human creativity and potential can be traced to a female source. I fifth-element Lucy. (The fifth element is love, Wesley. It’s love.)

Morris: Molly, you had me at “Dolphins are known for being emotional and empathetic, which is why they are our closest intellectual brethren in the animal kingdom.” Dolphins are also known for being the register in which Chris Tucker speaks in The Fifth Element and for being the subject of Besson’s The Big Blue (1988), in which, if memory serves, Jean-Marc Barr stars as a free diver whose affinity for dolphins tips into the possibility that he may be part dolphin. The film’s climax (one of the them) involves Barr breaking into an aquarium with Jean Reno and Rosanna Arquette to free a dolphin he knows to be homesick. On its surface, it’s an awkwardly acted, overlong dramatic adventure with a bad score (by Bill Conti for the U.S. version — which Besson replaced years later with Éric Serra’s original music).

Some of it is still laughable. Mostly, though it’s a grand, moving, frequently gorgeous disquisition on what it means to be human (hint: everything). Never mind that the movie takes a lot of license with the story of a real-life rivalry between two divers — the license is absolutely poetic. Besson came up as the epitome of cinéma du look, a term alleging that style matters more than anything else. With Besson you’re frequently watching a comic strip, but more often he pulls from himself a film of graphic-novel proportions. I’d say that’s true of something like The Big Blue, which is searching for meaning rather than coming to the set knowing what that meaning is. This, I guess, is why we’re calling The Big Blue a cult classic, because it has a grandeur that’s tempered by both naïveté and the sort of acting that renders that term meaningless. But there’s much to be said about Besson’s appreciation of the higher calling of beauty. In 1988, what man was more beautiful that Jean-Marc Barr? And what could be more sublime than this heavenly creature merging with the sea?

You’re right, Molly: All the big topics that Lucy touches on are interesting, but the movie’s devotion to the action genre is a funny place to work out these ideas. They can’t really be worked out. That climax is laughable in the way it juxtaposes Lucy’s megaupload with a Woovian hallway shootout. What’s amazing now about Besson in The Big Blue is that, in 1988, he didn’t have a genre. He was a 29-year-old feeling his way, thinking out loud. He had du look. But he also had da heart. What he’s become in the ensuing years — a film-industry force with a blockbuster mentality — doesn’t distress me. As I’ve said, he’s a high-calorie entertainer with catholic tastes and very few equals at this point. Who else could write and produce the underclass uprising of District B13 in a way that makes a term like “parkour politics” seem feasible? Who else could bring you the dad-husband fantasies of those Liam Neeson films and make the mistake of directing a movie about the life of Aung San Suu Kyi? Only Besson. 

Earlier, I mentioned to you, Molly, that I just left the major Jeff Koons retrospective at the Whitney Museum to volley ideas with you. I’m tempted to draw out a comparison between him and Besson. They’re vulgar, often exhilarating pop artists in the same age rage. They both do kitsch. They’re both interested in the sensation of the cheap thrill, and they’re both men whose ideas tend to get lost in their spectacular concoctions. Koons’s genius is apparent to me. He’s manufacturing glibness in the pursuit of a new kind of depth. He’s also obsessed with illusory industrial technique that, up close, is better than almost anything I’ve seen in 3-D. 
Besson might never get the same sort of reconsideration. He’s not repurposing junk so much as perpetuating it. But there’s a glory in Besson that goes beyond what makes the money people happy. I’m not crazy about Lucy. It does a lot of signaling, making it hard for me to have fun with the execution of that good premise. Still, there’s too much that’s unique about Besson to look the other way. He’s got a strong showmanship gene but an even stronger trust in audiences’ comfort in a lot of what he’s showing. I imagine he sees no difference between a woman turning into information and a man turning into a porpoise. You’re right, Molly. It’s all love.

Filed Under: Movies, blockbuster talk, lucy, Scarlett Johannson, luc besson