Thursday, July 20, 2017

Theory Thursday: "Lucy" (2014) is Underrated

Scene from Lucy
Welcome to a weekly column called Theory Thursdays, which will be released every Thursday and discuss my "controversial opinion" related to something relative to the week of release. Sometimes it will be birthdays while others is current events or a new film release. Whatever the case may be, this is a personal defense for why I disagree with the general opinion and hope to convince you of the same. While I don't expect you to be on my side, I do hope for a rational argument. After all, film is a subjective medium and this is merely just a theory that can be proven either way. 

Subject: Valerian is released in theaters this Friday.
Theory: Lucy is underrated.

To some extent, I haven't been more curious to witness the box office traction of a movie this year quite like Valerian. Based off of an iconic French comic series that inspired Star Wars, it is a film that looks gleefully aloof in a time where films like War for the Planet of the Apes are taking sci-fi into grim directions. Valerian looks downright silly, and it makes me worry that this will play against it more than help it stand out as vibrantly as it has for the past three months. After all, it is opening against arguably one of the most anticipated movies of the summer: Dunkirk. Considering how complacent my thoughts are on Christopher Nolan, I don't exactly have much to argue about on this Theory Thursday regarding him. However, I do think that director Luc Besson is someone that is both exciting and a bit, well, odd when it comes to major releases.

Valerian has been pushing its 3D technology and how it's a very expensive indie film. In these ways, it kind of reminds me of the doom that lingered over Cloud Atlas five years ago. I also think that its lack of seriousness is inevitably seen as a negative right now. I could be wrong and this could just be a great space adventure. However, the biggest reason that I am excited to see it is actually because of Besson's previous movie Lucy. It's a film that completed an unofficial trilogy of films in which Scarlett Johansson played robotic characters with such wonderful precision that you never wanted her to emote again. Between Her, Under the Skin, and Lucy, she produced a charisma that grabs the viewer in ways that her work in The Avengers lacks. The effects were great, but I think Besson's desire to just have fun is probably what makes his ambitious sci-fi films all the better, especially since it's a genre with talking aliens who have a penchant for looking really stupid.

I'm having trouble determining just how underrated Lucy is as a film. The reviews were fairly positive, earning a "Fresh" rating on critics aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes. However, there is that cultural backlash that suggests that it's one of the worst movies out there. I will accept a few criticisms as being true. The movie is dumber than its character. It's so brief and crazy that any sense of coherency isn't all there. You could even argue that Johansson is a fairly boring character. Those wanting to think of sci-fi films as a genre of prestige and higher intellect will find a lot of conflict with Lucy. Yet for someone like me, I find that there's something downright charming about someone whose ambitions outweigh story telling skills. Besson wants to present an entirely crazy story that will confuse audiences, falsely believing that they saw something more profound. It could be that we as a movie audience expect smarter things from our movies, but what's so wrong with the occasional dumb movie?

Okay, I get that this is contradictory to my own ethics. I wouldn't ever really endorse a Transformers movie, which is dumb as a landfill of rocks. However, I also think that it's important to consider intention when watching these movies. Besson never sets out to be vindictive or insensitive. He also never tries to condescend to his audience. One of the rules of writing a movie is to CONVINCE the audience of your reality, not mold your ideas to someone else's. It's here that the idea begins to allow itself into a wormhole of incredibly powerful imagery. Lucy is a drug smuggler who ingests drugs that make her use 100% of her brain. It's a concept that most people use seriously as a plot device, and make pretentious and annoying movies. Besson chooses to ask the question: what if it gave you superpowers?

Add in Morgan Freeman as a scientist whose lectures somehow mirror an outline of the philosophical "depth" that Besson is portraying here, and you get a sci-fi film that poses a front as a smart movie. Lucy is named after the first human, who even makes a cameo at one point. As she becomes intertwined in international affairs that cause high flung action sequences, Lucy is almost too isolating to be human. She is literally on another level, and the title cards occasionally pop up to remind us of that. As the brain power goes up, the story gets crazier. By the end, the 100% power is so surreal and unexpected that you cannot help but appreciate Besson's audacity to make this story that is extremely baffling. He has created something powerful in entertainment, and it has a pretty great theme song in Damon Albarn's "Sister Rust" over the closing credits. 

If the idea of whispering "What is going on?" during a movie bothers you, then Lucy is probably not going to be for you. However, I do think that it is so technically assured of what type of movie it wants to be that you just have to admire Besson for pulling it off. At only 90 minutes, it's also a tight little package that doesn't waste any time in keeping the story going. This is a delightfully bonkers movie, and one that an audience 20 years ago probably would've been more embracing towards. Yes, it did fairly well at the box office (11x its actual budget in profit), but I think its biggest achievement is showing how grand of a scope filmmakers can go without having to spend hundreds of millions that fit within a franchise. Lucy still feels like an anomaly to summer blockbuster entertainment, and its reception is mixed in a way that all the best niche films end up being.

I don't consider Besson to be the second coming of any great legend. However, Lucy has convinced me that he's one of those filmmakers who is so passionate that the least you could do is admire his work. Even if Valerian is an established property, it still feels like a Besson movie, and one that is going to be just as visually singular and nonsensically large as Lucy. How could it not be? Its subtitle is City of a Thousand Planets. That isn't something that could make sense on a realistic level. It's up to Besson to take us there and convince us that something like that exists. From there, it's up to you to determine how much of it you're willing to accept. For me, I am very curious to see how many planets we can visit in that city. Bring it on, Besson. 

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