“Lucy” may look like a hard-driving action film or yet another one of Scarlett Johansson's super-powered heroine movies.
It is those things. But it is so much more.
Luc Besson's production takes on big questions about the brain, what it means to be human and the nature of the universe — paired with automatic weapons and scary driving.
Besson, a French writer-director-studio mogul, has been thinking about this story for nearly a decade. While the jury remains hung on many of his stylish directing efforts — “La Femme Nikita,” “The Fifth Element,” “Leon: The Professional” and last year's “The Family” are some of them — it's evident he wrote and made “Lucy” with all of the imagination and craft at his command.
“I took my time; I thought about this film for a long time,” Besson, 55, says. “I wanted to really make it the best I can. That may not be enough for certain people, but after 30 years of making films, that's the best I can do. And I think I've improved and am a little better director now, so that makes me happy.”
The DNA for the film formed nine years ago, when a young woman was seated next to him at a regional promotional dinner for one of his films.
“I figured she was the niece of the mayor who wanted to be an actress, because that's usually what happens,” he recalls. “Then she told me she was a professor in nuclear cells, researching cancer. We had a conversation for four hours and I was just fascinated by what she told me. It was very exciting to learn all of this information about the brain and its capacity.”
Besson later became one of the founding members of ICM, the Brain & Spine Institute in Paris, where he gathered other scientists' ideas on what might happen if we learned to use more than the midteens percentage of mental neurons we're currently capable of firing at a given time.
“I didn't want to do a documentary about the brain,” he explains. “So when I felt ready, I really started to work on the script about three years ago. I went very carefully because it's a tricky subject. It can be boring very easily, you can be goofy very easily. So I took my time. The good thing about when you take real elements and fake elements is, if you mix it well, everything looks real.”
The story he came up with has Lucy, an American student in Taipei, Taiwan, tricked by her latest boyfriend into delivering a briefcase to criminal overlord Mr. Jang (South Korean actor Choi Min-sik of “Oldboy” fame). Jang's minions surgically insert a bag of a powerful new drug into Lucy's abdomen. Before she can become their reluctant drug mule, however, the bag bursts, sending neuron enhancers through her bloodstream.
Lucy not only escapes but evolves as her brain capacity increases 20, 30, 50 percent and beyond. She develops mind-over-matter powers and unparalleled knowledge — including the understanding that she won't survive the drug's effects on her body without some scientific help. With Jang's people on her trail, she heads to Paris to enlist the aid of brain expert Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman) and bewildered French cop Pierre Del Rio (Egyptian actor Amr Waked).
It gets pretty crazy. Besson was glad, though, that Johansson took the project as seriously as he did.
“She was very interested in the subject of the film and she read the script very quickly,” he says. “She came back with tons of questions, and she was always about the work, the work and the work. I needed that, I needed an actress who had the conscience that it was not just one more film.
“When Lucy reaches 20 percent, there is nothing from Scarlett that she could use to play it. Lucy no longer understands fear, love ... anything that makes you human is fading away. So Scarlett had to reinterpret the way she moves, the way she talks, the way she makes facial expressions. That was a hard job to do because it needed to be very subtle, but I didn't want her to play it like a robot.”
When he's not contemplating the limits of human consciousness, Besson runs his own studio-sized production company, EuropaCorp, for which he's written and produced the popular “Taken” and “Transporter” films, as well as many other movies and TV series. Although he's tried his hand at several straight dramas such as “The Lady” and “The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc,” he's best known for injecting a strong pop-culture sensibility into French cinema.
That hasn't always pleased Gallic critics.
“These guys who feel like they are guardians of the Temple of the French Cinema, it's just ridiculous,” Besson says. “There is no temple. There's art, it's very large and there's room for everyone. Did Jean-Luc Godard kill the French cinema when he arrived? He didn't kill it, he just brought another, different way of making films, and that's it.”
While admitting that he's proud to be French, Besson says he thinks of himself as an artist first. Raised in Greece and Yugoslavia, where his parents were Club Med scuba instructors, he often makes films, like “Lucy,” in English.
We suggested that “Lucy” may just be the one to earn comparisons to the most cerebral science-fiction masterpiece in movie history.
“I'm a big fan of Stanley Kubrick, for sure,” Besson reveals. “I like his geometry and architecture in image, it's very perfect.
“I think I saw ‘2001' when I was, like, 11 years old. I didn't have a clue about the film, of course, but I've seen it again. The thing is, every time you make a film about this area, which is going to the universe and beyond, there is a reference to Kubrick no matter what you do. I don't think ‘Lucy' was informed by ‘2001' too much; the purpose is different and it's maybe a little more accessible. But yes, I am a big fan of Kubrick. He's a master.”