Monday Round-Up, Part 1: Lucy

LucyI’m going to lay it out here: Lucy is a terrible fucking movie. It barely has merit as a film at all. It’s much like Scarlett Johansson‘s eponymous character in the movie: cool to look at but very little substance beyond that.

I chose to watch this because I like to punish myself.

The general conceit of the movie is that Lucy, through some vague machination of a man she’s been dating a week, is forced into being a drug mule for Korean drug lord (Choi Min-sik) in Taiwan. While in captivity, the bag holding the drugs that have been sewn into her organs is busted open and she suddenly gains the ability to use more than 10% of her brain. The rest of the movie is the even more improbable events of her trying to reconcile with this fact and seek revenge on the organization that put her in this state, along with a professor (Morgan Freeman) and a french detective (Amr Waked.)

Movies have been playing around with the idea of drugs that somehow give us superhuman mental abilities (like Limitless) but have done a way better job of maintaining believability; this movie harps visually on Lucy’s numeric brain potential rising over the course of the story and it’s ridiculous. The idea that we only use 10% of our brain’s “potential” is trash science (imagine if you didn’t have access to the 10% that controls autonomic functions) but the ultimate conclusion that we’d be able to access X-Men level powers of telepathy and time-control just sort of spirals out from there. It doesn’t even try to make the movie logically consistent, and I consider myself willing to swallow quite a lot of science-fiction (except that the Flash can move faster than the speed of light.)

Narratively, the movie is cob-web thin. Both plot and dialogue are insubstantial and wholly unbelievable.  Lucy moves from location to location, beating up people, using her powers inconsistently as she grows more and more into a supercomputer of terrifying proportions. No, I am not even being metaphorical on this count: she literally turns into a giant oozing black supercomputer, Akira-style, and then dissipates into the electronic ether. (My head-canon for this is that she eventually transforms into the voice-activated AI from Her, in a cruel twist of fate.) Characterization is also in short supply, as well. Characters are no more than talking heads or action-doers, simple organisms that shoot or throw out lines. The only characters who seem to merit names or individual personalities are Professor Norman (who provides the flimsy scientific plot hooks and awed expressions), Pierre del Rio, Mr. Jang and that’s it. It would be clever to say that they are merely obstacles to Lucy’s ascension into a pure being but that would imply a level of depth that is not found here.

Lucy’s characterization is similarly shallow but in a more problematic way: I noticed that the larger her brain capacity grew, her humanity fell away. I know this is intentional, as several times through the film they make a point of her remarking that human beings and their “lower” brain capacity are ruled by base desires and fear. It is a really gross and fairly ableist view of intellect and emotion, positing that rationality and pure knowledge rule out over feelings or that people with more brainy pursuits are somehow a higher echelon of human being. It comes across to me as a more artistic interpretation of gendered views on reason, that rationality is better and emotionality is not. Lucy moves from the beginning of the film where we are given nothing but a scared lady wearing typical club gear, scared out of her wits, to being transformed into a robotic, and even god-like (there’s an actual scene where she touches a primate ancestor’s finger in the exact method of Michaelangelo’s famous Sistine Chapel painting, I shit you not) being that is “so much better” then her former self. This leads into where I felt the real problems of the film were from a feminist perspective.

When the movie’s marketing engine first cranked up, there were some initial salvos that this was the “feminist film” we had all been waiting for, with a particularly bad-ass Johansson wending her way through Taiwan with a flurry of gunshots and kicks. Feminist it is not, not in the slightest. Not only is Lucy’s transformation presented in a very flat, unappealing “strong female character” way that relies entirely on masculine traits of violence and stoicism, but there is nothing feminist about the staggering amounts of racialized violence that occur in this movie. All of the aggressors in the movie are portrayed as some combination of Asian gangster stereotypes without acknowledging that one of the biggest aggressors in the movie is Lucy herself. I guess a white woman shooting down several Taiwanese people (one of whom is merely on a surgical table at the wrong time) is totally “kick-ass”? I was not really seeing how this was some feminist triumph when Lucy is basically a white female version of a thoughtless white male action hero with even less concern for human life.

It was not surprising to me that this movie was written and directed by Luc Besson. Besson has a pretty solid body of work that features complicated women characters like NikitaThe Messenger, and my favorite The Fifth Element.  This movie felt weighed down by a huge CGI budget, confusing visuals and a really shoddy script. It felt like the typical Besson “girl” on the surface but the rest is phoned in, offensively so. In other films, particularly Fifth Element, the woman’s “chosen one” status is played artfully or at least in a clever way; Lucy is just incredibly hamfisted and empty.

Overall, I’d say that this movie was disappointment, but that would imply that I had high expectations going in.

Monday Rundown: Saved!

Hillary Faye (Mandi Moore) pelts Mary (Jenna Malone) with the Bible, in one of the movie’s most hilarious moments.

Instead of typically explaining what I would like to achieve on my blog (and therefore letting it lapse for long periods of time), I figured I’d just right into it and let God sort it out. I’ve been sort of loosely maintaining this idea that I would watch one film a week, no other stipulations other than that, just to kind of re-expand my love of the form and generally unwind after a long week at work. Since my prime movie-watching time is the weekend, I figured that summarizing on Monday what I had watched the days prior would be a good way to also start my new life as a general feminist media critic versus solely focusing on video games.

This week’s pick was not intentional - I was looking to watch Iron Man 3 or Captain America: The Winter Soldier in anticipation of seeing Age of Ultron with my boyfriend this week but sadly neither film was available for rent on Amazon Prime video. So when Saved! turned up randomly on my Netflix recommendations, I figured that maybe this would be a good time for a fun re-watch. I’ve seen this movie at least two times before but the last time was at least 6-10 years ago. Would it hold up? Many of the teen movies I was obsessed with in the late 90’s/early 00s renaissance for that genre still hold up relatively well these days, even if none of the characters have smartphones or social media. I didn’t back then, so they still feel real to me.

Saved! is somewhere between earnest teen drama and tautly written satire of Christianity written for adults. It’s obviously very accessible though, speaking as someone who has no access to what really goes on in “born again” and “charismatic” Christian circles. The story follows the protagonist Mary (Jenna Malone), as she struggles to deal with a crisis of faith, brought to her by an accidental pregnancy with her actually-gay boyfriend. The movie moves briskly through the 10 months leading up to her giving birth, and introduces a really hilarious cast of characters that attend the American Eagle Christian school with Mary: her ex-best friend Hillary Faye (Mandi Moore), Hillary’s disabled brother Roland (Macaulay Culkin), as well as the school’s single Jewish student and trouble-maker, Cassandra (Eva Amurri). Adults are conspicuously out of the picture, which is pretty true to form in most teen films, other than Mary’s absentee Christian Decorator of the Year award-winning mom Lillian (Mary Louise-Parker) and the overly-hip Pastor Skip (who is father to Mary’s crush, Patrick, played by Patrick Fugit.)

What really kept this movie from being too bogged down by what could have been sneering disgust or overt familiarity with the topic was mostly Mary’s struggles with reconciling that her own actions, not Jesus’, are really at work here. Losing your faith is a pretty earnest moment for a lot of people, especially young people, and struggling with teen pregnancy on top of that is no easy task. The jokes are kept pretty blasphemous but not exceptionally cruel. The world as it is seen through Mary’s eyes is obviously to be mocked but not in a way that felt too distanced. I got a sense that the script was written with a lot of care. That being said, the movie as a whole is extremely wry whether it’s Hillary Faye’s intense, militant religiousness wrapped around a fairly offensive center or Pastor Skip and Lillian’s obvious affection for eachother despite Skip still being married to Patrick’s missionary mom. The whole movie serves to very delicately show that adhering to the rules does no one good when so much of the human existence is that we’re all flawed in some way. It also played heavily on the idea that the facades that we want others to buy into aren’t truly who we are deep down inside, where only God (or whomever), can see us.

Despite the fact that the movie takes place over a decent length of time (most of Mary’s entire senior year at American Eagle), they did a lot of very subtle jumps in time, seamlessly cutting from one holiday to the next, using that as a way to vignette a particular moment in Mary’s arc and on-going attempts to hide the pregnancy from most people around her. It also weaves in quite a few scenes that give us a greater understanding of many of the people in Mary’s orbit, such as her mom’s loneliness, Roland and Cassandra’s burgeoning relationship and Hillary Faye’s more desperate attempts to “fix” Mary and her friends. Subtle things like Tia’s (Heather Matarazzo) eventual transformation into Hillary Faye Jr. play out in the background, much like the holiday decorations strewn around the school, and underscore what happens at the pique of the film’s tension - the end-of-year prom.

Prom scenes are often the hyper-focus of many teen films and so it’s hard not to fall into cliches. They work as a place where power relationships are thrown into stark relief and the real magic of a film’s climax happens. Memorable prom scenes like Jawbreaker and Carrie are rife with stylistic conventions that seem to occur in every film going forward. Saved! keeps it a little less dramatic but twists everything around with it’s own flair; Hillary Faye is revealed as the actual villain who orchestrated a frame job of Mary and Cassandra (which Mean Girls feels reminiscent of), Dean shows up with his boyfriend from Mercy House (the Christian deprogramming school, alluding to something that wouldn’t become a bigger story until years later), and all of this is punctuated by one falling Jesus statue and Mary eventually giving birth.

The movie is sweet without being too schmaltzy, referential without being trite (I got shades of Mermaids here) and embraces the extremely dry humor without being alienating about the subject matter in a way that I found really refreshing. It’s a teen movie with a lot of outside elements and still stays pretty true-to-form. If you’re looking for good satire with a decent story, this is a great place to look.