A young American student in Taiwan falls into the hands of drug smugglers, who surgically insert a packet of a new chemical into her stomach. When the package leaks, its effects on her system are catastrophic — her capacity to use her brain expands, allowing her to manipulate matter and absorb huge amounts of information at a glance, but she has not long to live.
Accepting the obvious, that no movie exists in a cultural vacuum, it’s tempting to read Luc Besson’s Lucy in the context of other recent movies. Scarlett Johansson, who plays the titular character, has starred in a run of science fiction films over the last year — she plays an alien in a human body in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, a quickly developing sentient computer operating system in the Oscar-nominated Her, and spy-turned-superhero, the Black Widow, in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
All of these roles have her cast as an outsider and observer of humanity, even the Marvel movies, where her character is self-contained and closed off. Johansson brings to them all a sort of curious detachment that is genuinely effective. Under the Skin opens with the putting together of the alien character’s eye so that from the beginning, we’re aware of her as a being who sees. In a probably accidental parallel scene in Besson’s film, Lucy comes back to consciousness after the drug has wracked her body and we see her eye blinking through several shapes and permutations before coming to rest.
And yet, as the nameless protagonist of Under the Skin comes closer to humanity, we’re invited to see the creatures she preys on as vulnerable, thinking beings. Black Widow’s arc has her open up and form gradual friendships with her new colleagues. Samantha, the “her” of Her, begins by forging a relationship with one human but is soon involved in intimate connections with hundreds, her developing intellect allowing for a larger relationship with other creatures, human or AI. Lucy, by contrast, is growing away from the humans around her.
Lucy has resonance with another big science fiction movie of this summer, Wally Pfister’s Transcendence, in which brilliant scientist Evelyn Caster (Rebecca Hall) uploads her dying husband’s consciousness to a powerful computer. With access to near-infinite amounts of information and a rapidly expanding consciousness, Will Caster (Johnny Depp) turns into something of a monster. Both films have their protagonists grow more and more remote, both are martyred for science (Transcendence seems a little more ambivalent than Lucy on this subject). Both feature Morgan Freeman in the supporting role of a scientist whose job is largely to look wise and reflect on the follies of mankind. Both use TED talk-style settings as a tool for exposition. Neither is very good. And yet it’s interesting to consider what these two science fiction films about characters transcending what we know as human have to say about humanity and where it goes from here.
Nowhere good, appears to be the answer. Lucy’s reaction to the changes in her body is to travel around Taiwan indiscriminately killing the local people — the film’s racial politics are what you’d suspect from the trailer, which consists entirely of Johansson’s character killing Asian men — and even as she becomes more resigned to her situation, she finds it harder to find connections with other people. Will Caster’s expanded consciousness doesn’t extend to such things as greater empathy. He begins to use other people’s bodies as tools and even with the wife whom he loves, he is unable to grasp the concept of consent. Apart from being a tragically limited understanding of human intelligence, I suspect it’s bad science, though accepting flawed science is probably a prerequisite here.
Early in the film, as Lucy is pursued by her captors, we cut to Discovery Channel-style footage of a predator fleeing prey — at one level, she is just another animal. In a later scene, we see her travel through time to meet the first Lucy, our earliest human ancestor and reach out to her, re-enacting Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam (previously shown in the film). Across time and space and thousands of years of evolution, the first and last humans (because when Lucy’s brain has reached 100 per cent capacity, where else is there to go?) see each other, and forge a connection. The film can identify Lucy with animals, or with our most distant ancestors. When it comes to humans in our current form, both the film, and Lucy herself, don’t seem to know what to do.
In this, Lucy is perhaps more intelligent than I give it credit for. Yet the question remains. Freeman’s character, Professor Norman, tells Lucy that one of the most important functions of life forms is to pass on knowledge. A suggestion that this knowledge might be misused is made, then dismissed. “Life was given to us a billion years ago. Now you know what to do with it,” says Lucy, at the end of the film. I suspect many of us would prefer not to.
Subramanian is a Newcastle-based writer