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 continued…