REVIEW: Lucy (2014)

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Directed by Luc Besson
Written by Luc Besson
Starring Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Min-sik Choi, Amr Waked, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Pilou Asbaek, Analeigh Tipton

2014 saw the release of two films dealing with the concept of a post-human being: Wally Pfister’s Transcendence, which depicts the technological-based post-human concept of whole-brain emulation, and Luc Besson’s Lucy, which goes for a more preposterous premise for its titular transcendent being and uses her to tell a very spacy and heady action movie.

It was supposed to be a simple job. All Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) had to do was deliver a mysterious briefcase to Mr. Jang (Min-sik Choi). But immediately Lucy is caught up in a nightmarish deal where she is captured and turned into a drug mule for a new and powerful synthetic drug. When the bag she is carrying inside of her stomach leaks, Lucy’s body undergoes unimaginable changes that begins to unlock her mind’s full potential. With her new-found powers, Lucy turns into a merciless warrior intent on getting back at her captors, receiving invaluable help from Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman), the leading authority on the human mind, and French police captain Pierre Del Rio (Amr Waked).

Like many of Luc Besson’s films, Lucy is a frothy-sweet mixture of pseudo-intellectual ideas and impeccably-staged action, centered around a strong female lead who can kick some serious ass. This time around, that lead is Scarlett Johansson, and her ass-kicking is the product of her unlocked mind. Embracing the tired old myth that human beings only use 10% of their brain mass, or “cerebral capacity” as Professor Norman calls it, Besson uses the hypothesis in a somewhat convoluted setup to a frenetic and stylish action flick that actually manages to make up for its narrative deficiencies.

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Before I go on to sing Lucy‘s praises, I must address the elephant in the room. As I already mentioned, Besson’s take on the mighty psionically-powered superhuman is fundamentally flawed from its base within the 10% brain usage myth. Simply put, it’s complete rubbish. We use every bit of our brains, and there is absolutely no evidence to suggest otherwise. Digging deeper into the premise of this “hypothesis,” mostly told through scenes of a lecture by Professor Norman and later by Lucy herself, only reveals the massive holes in Besson’s logic. Lucy’s ever-expanding cerebral capacity reveals dormant abilities in the human brain: complete control over her own body, over others, over electromagnetic signals, and finally, time itself. So why does she need a massively powerful synthetic drug to access it? Why do any of us? How exactly does a simple flesh-and-blood organ exert control over space-time? Besson tries his best to explain, but his best isn’t enough to ever come off as believable.

Luckily, he is very skilled at crafting a hell of a violent good time. Beginning with Lucy as a scared college student at the mercy of Oldboy‘s Min-sik Choi as a typical-to-form slimy Besson gangster, the film weaves an intricate drug mule plot that intercuts with both Norman’s lecture and some very on-the-nose shot sequences of predators and prey. It’s classic Besson, and provides suspenseful opening that eases the viewer into the more metaphysical remainder of the film, which starts with the bag of CPH4 rupturing in Lucy’s abdomen, exposing her to an overdose of the superdrug.

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From here, Johansson carries the film in a performance that it truly doesn’t deserve. Going from a terrified young woman, authentic in every way, the CPH4 transforms her into a relentless killing machine with very little humanity left. It’s a very tall order for any actor to have to play, but Johansson toes the very fine line and succeeds brilliantly, appearing sufficiently creepy with just the right amount of her previous identity to anchor the character. Min-sik echoes her creepy factor as Jang, and Amr Waked rounds out the main players as a French detective caught up in Lucy’s quest to acquire more of the drug in order to stay alive. And of course, Morgan Freeman is God–er, I mean Morgan Freeman.

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Heavy on CGI visual effects, Lucy nonetheless electrifies visually, appearing as a clean and colorful digital slate punctuated by images of the changing innards of Lucy’s body and the powerful manifestations of her new abilities. Action scenes are handled with care, either with a tactful mind to cutting or with John Woo-style slow motion that allows us to savor every gunshot, every pounding hit.

When it comes down to it, Lucy likes to play around with very interesting and profound ideas about human perspective and the boundaries of perception and reality, with a character that has truly transcended all of it. Whether it does that well seems to be up to interpretation, given it’s horribly wrong method of presenting said questions. Lucy is blue pill entertainment; meant to be consumed, not savored, and while I can’t quite turn my brain fully off to avoid complaining about the perpetuation of pseudo-science at its worst, that doesn’t mean I can’t recommend the film for what it is: hella fun.

REVIEW: Ghost in the Shell (2017)

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Directed by Rupert Sanders
Written by Jamie Moss, William Wheeler, and Ehren Kruger, Based on the Manga by Masamune Shiro
Starring Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbaek, Takeshi Kitano, Juliette Binoche, Michael Pitt

Having recently watched and reviewed the original Ghost in the Shell a few days ago, I was simultaneously blown away by that film, and proactively disappointed in this one. With Rupert Sanders (Snow White and the Huntsman) in the director’s chair and another whitewashing controversy, I was starting to expect a let-down in my future. No way an Americanized remake could beat an anime classic.

In the near future, Major (Scarlett Johansson) is the first of her kind: A human saved from a terrible crash, who is cyber-enhanced to be a perfect soldier devoted to stopping the world’s most dangerous criminals. When terrorism reaches a new level that includes the ability to hack into people’s minds and control them, Major is uniquely qualified to stop it. As she prepares to face a new enemy, Major discovers that she has been lied to: her life was not saved, it was stolen. She will stop at nothing to recover her past, find out who did this to her and stop them before they do it to others.

Ghost in the Shell is probably the best film so far this year–that is, the best film that people will hate simply for existing. (You thought I was saying that this is better than Logan? HA!) Hollywood whitewashing is by no means a new problem, but it is much more recognized today, and Ghost has been suffering from its own pale bath ever since Scarlett Johansson was cast as Motoko Kusanagi, now known as Major Mera Killian. My own feelings on the matter are mixed. While I fully realize that Hollywood films are even more racially biased against Asians than blacks, I don’t feel Ghost’s casting choice is that grievous. Sure, it smacks of cynical capitalism to think that American audiences wouldn’t accept an Asian protagonist, but Johansson’s casting has enjoyed the full support of both the original manga writer Masamune and director Mamoru Oshii. In Japan, it doesn’t seem to generate the outrage that it does over here. Am I saying there’s nothing wrong with it? Not necessarily, it just seems that in this instance it isn’t that big of a deal.

Perhaps it can be chalked up to the nature of the film’s setting. In the original, everybody seems to accept Motoko’s nature as a full-body cyborg, as if even her case isn’t all that uncommon, if not unique. This film’s Major is definitely stated to be the first of her kind, a prototype for the “future of humanity,” as Juliette Binoche’s Dr. Ouelette frequently says. This ‘shell’ is a product of the Hanka Corporation, a vast and powerful cybernetics manufacturer whose monopoly over the world’s most ubiquitous apparent industry places it square into the cyberpunk mold of the evil company. This will have consequences in the latter half of the film, further pushing the Ghost franchise’s themes of the loss of identity and self in a post-human reality. I don’t want to drop spoilers, so I’ll just say that by the end, it’s not exactly a stretch to see that the filmmakers at least listened the concerns of fans and tried to adjust.

Visually, the film is absolute treat. A feast for the eyes, in fact. The cityscapes on screen are Blade Runner‘s Los Angeles on steroids, with buildings stacked alongside each other in the slapdash architectural style of Hong Kong, and then covered with a deluge of holographic advertisements and displays. The world of the original anime film was stunning enough; here, it is loud and overbearing, as any cyberpunk dystopia should be, but still beautiful to take in. As are the other big draw of the film’s special and visual effects offerings, the characters’ cybernetics. Batou’s mechanical optics focus like camera lenses, and government scientists connect directly to their computers in a macabre fusion of high tech digital networking and old-fashioned “plug-it-in” mechanical monstrosities. The mundane-yet-disturbing way with which cybernetics are handled in the film match what was seen before in this series, making up for any deficiencies the screenplay suffers from.

Only a few things needle me. One is a very similar scene to the interrogation of the city worker I mentioned in the original’s review: the disturbing nature of worker’s actions are replaced with another encounter with the hacker Kuze that doesn’t pack the same punch. Kuze himself is a rather typical sci-fi character trope, well-realized but ultimately not as interesting a concept as the Puppet Master. And what is probably my biggest problem with the film is the very end. It just wasn’t that good. Plot threads are tied up messily and on the quick, leaving opportunities for a more appropriately darker send-off out to dry. At least we got a badass live action Aramaki out of it.

One thing that is absolutely and undeniably top rate, besides the visual effects and production design, is the score. A collaboration between Lorne Balfe and the incredible Clint Mansell, the soundtrack is a pulsing synth beauty, driving when it needs to be and suitably eerie and mystical most of the time. I have to go grab the album now.

I honestly thought that this would be the part where I tell you to wait for the blu-ray disc to hit Redbox, but I’m actually going to go back on that and tell you to see it if it interests you. Just don’t expect a definitive portrayal of this cinematic universe if you are a fan. No matter how well it was done, Motoko’s race change was still unnecessary and Sanders, despite turning in his best work, doesn’t reach the level of master with his ability to elicit perfect performances from his actors. If I still gave out letter scores, Ghost in the Shell would have a solid B. And it should be proud to get it.