That Opening Moment: Symbolism and Terror in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
Lucy is a 2014 action thriller about a university student drawn into a dangerous drug deal that unleashes within her staggering superhuman powers.
When watching just about any film from visionary director Luc Besson, one has to suspend a certain degree of disbelief. He layers his stories in a finely-crafted elixir of fantasy and reality, making for some truly entertaining, if not slightly left of authentic, movies. Perhaps that’s most true with Lucy, a film that tasks its audience with slipping into a kind of altered state, where we must abandon common sense and just hang on to the armrests for an blisteringly absurd but very thrilling ride.
The story centers on a young woman living and studying in Taipei, Taiwan who gets herself into some serious trouble, where a considerable amount of a chemical called CPH4 is bagged and stuffed in her gut, meant to be muled it into Europe. However, before she’s sent on her way, she upsets a lower captor, looking to take advantage of her, causing him to savagely beat her, including a few swift kicks in the belly. This ruptures the bags and has her system absorbing the fast-acting highly-potent drug. It’s not long after she’s imbibed with some extraordinary powers, ones that increase as time goes by, and soon Lucy is a force of one unlike anything thing that has ever existed, running roughshod over time and space, resetting human destiny.
Okay, so aside from the direction it goes in and whether or not your on board, there is no taking away from the extraordinary start of this movie because honestly, it’s really something special. After some imagery of dividing cells as opening credits roll, it begins with Lucy, and no, not Lucy played by star Scarlett Johansson, but rather ‘Lucy’, the common name of AL 288-1, the 3 million-year-old australopithecine female regarded as the first human. She is squatting at a riverbank taking handfuls of water. It is serene, calm, a little cautious, and endlessly curious. A disembodied voice, who we come to find out is our hero Lucy in the present, narrates two lines: “Life was given to us a billion years ago. What have we done with it?” We’ll soon find out.
The camera pans rapidly over a forested hillside and into the future where it settles on a bustling Taipei before stopping on a lovely blonde-haired girl having a bit of a disagreement with a man named Richard (Pilou Asbæk). He is asking her to take a small metal briefcase into the large office building behind him, saying that he can’t because he’s not so well liked by the people inside. Not only that, but the guy expecting the case is also expecting total “10” to deliver the package. Naturally, she wants nothing to with it and gently attempts to extract herself from the situation. Richard continues to try and persuade, telling her of the time he went to a museum and learned that the first ever woman was called ‘Lucy’, hoping to inspire her. It doesn’t.
Not having any of it, again she tries to leave. Still, he works his case, telling her it’s so simple: Flash a pretty smile and bounce. However, on screen, the image of a small white mouse approaching a cocked cheese trap appears in a flash, a visual signal to the audience that something isn’t right. Seriously. It’s startling how much tension this mouse creates.
The girl, still nameless, pushes him for answers. What’s in the case? Papers. How much does he get paid? A thousand dollars. She doesn’t care. She’s wants out and turns to leave again, though now, Richard is getting stressed. He offers her half the money and more and more tells her it’s not hard. Then, in desperation, suddenly locks the case to her wrist with a handcuff. It horrifies her. But now she’s in it. On screen, the image flashes of cheetahs on the plains stalking antelope.
Having no choice, she gingerly enters the front entrance and walks unsteadily to the reception desk, awkwardly telling the man behind the counter she is here for Mr. Jang (Min-sik Choi), the name Richard gave her. It’s clearly a name of significance, causing the clerk some obvious worry, and soon enough, after an exchange on the phone, a group of men in black suits exit the nearby elevator and escort her up, though not before she sees Richard in the window getting violently shot in the back, a gruesome spray of blood blanketing the glass. This is bad.
In panic, she is brought before Jang, a vicious Korean drug kingpin, whose hands and face are bloodied, the room he enters from littered with bodies. The girl, who takes the name “Lucy” now, frantically pleads for her life as the images of cheetahs chasing and devouring antelopes continue to break into view. She is placed at a desk and Jang, speaking only Korean, seems aggressively interested in who she is. It looks like her end.
I won’t spoil where it goes from here, the film jumping from this point into the more science fiction-angled elements that define the rest of the story. What’s great about the opening its insane tension. Besson has always had a flare for stylized hyper realism, his 1994 classic Léon: The Professional one of the greatest ever made in the genre. Here, he strips away any sense of humor and irony, setting a remarkable tone, one that really glues the film together as a whole. It’s the dialogue and delivery that sell it, something Besson, no matter the silliness of some of his films, does very well.
We know nothing of “Lucy” as the scene starts, the movie jumping right into a conflict, and through it, we learn much about her and her situation. The economy of these words and the brilliant use of a flashback that briefly show she and Richard at a dance club getting wasted, reveal bits, as do throwaway lines like how she needs a shower and that she’s not ready for exams on Monday. This a woman probably powered by spontantity, poor decisions, and lack of motivation. Those are ingredients that get you mixed up with a guy like Richard. And Mr. Jang.
Johansson is really good here. I mean, really good. While again, the film takes off into places that defy logic, at its start, its a grounded, horrifying thriller, made convincing by her great performance. I almost wish it had stayed so and been a movie about an empowered woman with natural abilities who overcome tremendous adversity to take revenge rather than the superhero movie it becomes. But what can you do?
I love the in-your-face visuals of animals facing deadly traps, one created by man, the other nature. It’s hardly subtle, but in so doing, creates a palpable sense of unnerving tension. Besson has always been a strong visual storyteller, his attention to detail making him one of the greats, however this nice little flare is exceptionally effective, and what’s really great is how these images are basically symbolic of her on both sides as the story progresses, once trapped becoming quite the opposite by the end.
Lucy is a flawed movie but if you swallow the pill, has plenty to make it fun. The science is nonsense but the action is simply awesome and Johansson is just sensational. She’s absolutely fearless, and her work here deserves praise, especially where it starts, as a woman on the edge of great change. This is a great opening moment.