The Great Transhuman Empire

lucyHere’s a fact.  The name Lucy was given to the first “person” we know about: a 3.2 million year-old hominid, whose discovery proved that our taxonomic family was bipedal before our brain size increased, shedding further light on human evolution (i.e. which primates we came from).  Here’s a fact about that Lucy: she used 100% of her brain capacity, and so do I, and so do you.

Ignoring the film’s issue of presenting urban legend as science (see here), Lucy lists between human drama and sci-fi goofiness, occasionally trying to remake Akira and 2001: a Space Odyssey in its structure and imagery.  The title character, played by Scarlett Johansson, is a grad student abroad in Taipei.  Her boyfriend of one week is worried that his employer, who overpays him for simple courier services, is up to something devious, and tricks Lucy into making today’s delivery in his place.  Of course, this is the day his employer, Mr. Jang (Choi Min-sik) is expecting the delivery of a volatile drug that he and his identically black-suited mooks will sell for a fortune in Europe.  Jang decides to use Lucy as a drug mule, sewing a package of the drug – a tiny blue crystal – into her stomach.

While she’s being held, Lucy is assaulted by a bored henchman, who accidentally ruptures the package inside her and releases the drug into her bloodstream.  Just like that, she knows Kung Fu, how to use a handgun, how to navigate the city on her own, and how to fearlessly use violence and intimidation to get people to do what she wants.  She escapes captivity, has the package removed from her abdomen, and finds out what it is: CPH4 (made up by Besson, at least as far as its name), a synthesized version of a substance that pregnant women produce to help a fetus grow.  Apparently, when you ingest a whole bunch of this as an adult, you gain telekinetic abilities and all sorts of insight into how the universe works, as well as gradually losing your humanity in the process.  Lucy, who somehow knows what’s happening to her, phones her mother and reveals that she now vividly remembers details of her infancy, including nursing.  She then launches a solo attack on Jang, whom she inexplicably refuses to kill after decimating his security force and reading his mind in order to glean the whereabouts of the other three drug mules (she needs more CPH4 to continue transcending her own abilities).

Meanwhile, Professor Samuel Norman (Morgan Freeman) lectures a French university on what might happen if humans could harness a larger percentage of their cerebral capacity (I feel compelled to again point out that this is all nonsense; humans use one-hundred-percent of our brains at all times, and Besson should be embarrassed not only for perpetuating a dangerous myth, but for insisting that he spent years on this film’s “science” before even writing a script – Freeman delivers his lecture while his facial expressions tell us “Everything I’m saying is bullshit, and so can you!”).  With her newfound omniscience, Lucy discovers his research, reads all six-thousand pages of it in seconds, and hashes over the meaning of life with him.  Through a few conversations made up of profound tripe, they decide that the purpose of existence is to pass on knowledge, and Lucy devises a way to allow humans to finally learn to “use” their lives once she’s gone.  As she travels from country to country, memory to memory, era to era, she keeps French police captain Del Rio (Amr Waked) around as a “reminder” that she’s human (How so?  Because he’s handsome?), all the while being stalked by the Korean gangsters she left alive for plot convenience.

What works about the film is Scarlett Johansson.  The bad science and derivative story don’t get a pass, but with Johansson’s voice, what could have been a tough sit becomes pretty engaging, even in a universe where the highest of minds produce philosophical drivel that wouldn’t impress a mildly well-educated middle-schooler.  But carry the film as Johansson might, a character needs to be characterized.  She almost is, but the plot gets in the way far too early, and the effects of the drug cause Lucy’s personality to become increasingly stoic and robotic.  But we still root for her, and it’s hard not to when her opponents are essentially the Devil (I mean, come on; does anyone imagine that Mr. Jang and his seemingly regenerative mooks have actual home lives?).  The biggest difference between she and her Akira predecessor, Tetsuo, is that Tetsuo’s inferiority complex and lack of control led him to transmogrifying legions of people into puddles of gore at the wave of a hand, whereas Lucy would rather leave them in suspended humiliation as she casually leaves the room in stiletto heels, taking their prized MacGuffins with her.

As for the rest of the cast, Waked shows some real versatility as the bewildered-but-capable police captain, and Choi, prolific as he is, turns it off to play a villain who has to be menacing no matter what he’s doing.  The Professor character, maybe, should have been played by someone other than Morgan Freeman.  Nothing against him; quite the opposite – a thin character’s thinness is made even more obvious when a famous actor, known for complex and intense performances, is relegated to inhabiting it.  The result is, “Hey, there’s Morgan Freeman doing something,” not “Hey, this film needed this character.”  In fact, the whole thing would have been passable if Lucy had gained the powers from the drug the exact same way, but without including the brain-capacity angle.  Think of how much room there would have been for characterization without all the big-headed pontificating and fake jargon.

The real emotional apex occurs when Lucy, in the 2001 part of the film, briefly travels back to the time of the primordial Lucy, who is busy drinking from a river.  Present-day Lucy extends her finger, and old furry ape Lucy reciprocates, recreating Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, but with two women (not to mention at least one person who actually existed).  I love that this can happen in a film, and that this film can outsell Dwayne Johnson’s leviathan-esque biceps.

Lucy (2014); written and directed by Luc Besson; starring Scarlett Johansson, Choi Min-sik, and Morgan Freeman.


The best Akira ripoff yet

chronicleJosh Trank’s Chronicle is a documentary-style sci-fi movie in which the audience witnesses the drama through “recovered footage” (in the vein of Cloverfield and The Blair Witch Project), and retains the pretension of the genre, which is bolstered by the fact that the character holding the camera has the power to make the device float in the air for cinematic shots.

The story follows Andrew (Dane DeHaan), an anti-social highschooler with a dying mother and a drunk dad (Michael Kelly).  Andrew one day decides to “film everything,” including but not limited to his father’s drunken behavior, conversations with his friends, cheerleaders doing their routines (which they don’t much appreciate), and the lewd antics at local parties.  During one such party, Steve Montgomery (Michael B. Jordan), a popular young blade running for class president, discovers a mysterious hole in the middle of the woods.  Steve invites Andrew and his only friend, cousin Matt (Alex Russell) to check it out with him.  Inside, the trio touch a magical MacGuffin that makes their noses bleed, and the next bit of footage we’re allowed to see features the trio practicing telekinesis (that is, moving objects with their minds).  They decide to become stronger while keeping their new-found powers secret from everyone (which, we must suspect, will not be a success).  Highlights are placed upon Andrew’s seemingly natural aptitude for his powers, while the Plato-quoting, zenlike, borderline hipster Matt struggles with his.  This would be an overt setup for a fight scene if there weren’t so many other plot threads to bite into.

The first thing the trio do with their powers, of course, is terrorize teenage girls and small children.  The film comes off as rather sexist at the outset, employing full use of the No Girls Allowed Clause until the introduction of Casey (Ashley Hinshaw), the love interest of Matt, and even then, she’s only used as a plot device to 1) score more convenient shots because she also carries a camera around, and 2) give Matt someone to protect.  As the story continues, Matt and Steve try to create a social life for Andrew, which backfires as his powers strengthen and the goofing around gives way to a darker narrative in which Andrew, through a series of tell-too-much-and-don’t-show-enough confessionals, decides that he is an “apex predator.”

The difference between Andrew and Tetsuo Shima, deuteragonist of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira, who was similarly bullied and spat upon before obtaining telekinetic powers and taking revenge on the world that wronged him, is that Tetsuo eventually realized that what he was doing was wrong.  It was too late for him by that point, as his powers had gone out of control, but here, Andrew never seems to grasp such an idea.  By the end, he seems to have become rage incarnate, rather than the human character we started with.

The film is effective in what it sets out to do: deliver a moral-heavy story involving battles between teenagers who can fly.  Trank accomplishes this while painting a fairly realistic picture of teenage boys.  However, I grow increasingly wary of films that rely on stylistic delivery – take away the “recovered footage” angle, and what are we left with?  One of the most derivative and morally obvious stories since Harry Potter, that’s for sure.  Additionally, the spliced-together film technique sometimes comes off as an excuse for shoddy editing as opposed to a dramatic choice.  Luckily, the film is well-acted, and the decision to use mostly unknown actors is a good one.

All things considered, Chronicle is solid entertainment.  If you’re not bothered by the occasional sexism, formulaic storytelling, corny CG, and an ending with more holes in it than a showerhead, then settle in and let the telekinetically-charged sparks fly.

P.S. Can this be the official replacement for the Akira live-action movie?  I beg you to leave well enough alone.

Chronicle (2012); written by Max Landis; directed by Josh Trank; starring Dane DeHaan, Michael B. Jordan, Alex Russell, and Ashley Hinshaw.