‘Lucy’: Feast for the eyes, famine for the head

The notion that human beings use only 10 percent of their brains is as outdated as the idea that Mars has navigable canals. So writer-director Luc Besson, who uses that concept as a starting point for “Lucy,” immediately throws this action fantasy into the realm of high-octane nonsense. Whether you take to it will depend on whether you consider “high-octane” or “nonsense” the more important word.

Scarlett Johansson plays the title character, an unintelligent woman abducted by a Taiwanese gang led by Mr. Jang (Min-sik Choi). His henchmen insert bags of an experimental drug into the intestines of four people, who are ordered to deliver them to four European cities. Hers breaks open during a beating, and the drug spills into her bloodstream.

Suddenly she can use more and more of her cerebral powers. She slays her captors and acquires the ability to learn Chinese overnight and scan thousands of documents as fast as a computer can display them. Soon she can move objects with her mind, read thoughts and heal herself. She also realizes she’ll die in 24 hours, unless (and maybe even if) she swallows the other three sacks of narcotics.

Besson has always had a strong visual sense: A scene where Lucy begins to disintegrate cell by cell has both a “wow” and an “ugh” factor. When we look through her eyes, we see the world with fresh amazement. Chase scenes crackle; Thierry Arbogast’s cinematography glows.

On the other hand, Besson’s a clumsy storyteller. Why should drug pushers develop a synthetic version of something babies get in the womb from their mother? (The crooks don’t even know what it does.) Must we pretend not to notice when Parisian cops protecting a building don’t see a dozen gangsters loading machine guns in the parking lot?

Besson has also spent 24 years, from “La Femme Nikita” to the present, exploring a creepy theme: A vulnerable young woman, guided by older men who ultimately can’t protect her, realizes she’ll have to kill her way out of jeopardy. I’ll let his shrink explains this, but Amr Waked and Morgan Freeman work well as a bewildered French cop and a neurologist whose thinking is up to date, if the date is 1960. (Scientists now say we probably use all of our brains, just not at the same time. We don’t know what every brain cell does, but that doesn’t mean it’s unused.)

The movie takes on a grand, operatic insanity when Lucy approaches 100 percent of brain use and becomes omniscient and omnipotent. That makes her God, presumably, a concept so audacious I don’t know what Besson intended. Is he saying God is a perfectly evolved human? That there is no God, and we’ll destroy ourselves by trying to reach perfection? Does Besson even know what he’s trying to convey?

Johansson has now played alluring creatures with inhuman powers in three movies over the last two years: “Her,” “Under the Skin” and “Lucy.” (She’s an alien of a different kind in Avengers movies.) She has brought total commitment to each, enhancing our sense of wonder by exploring her characters’ sense of it. But you don’t need even 10 percent of your brain to see that “Lucy” isn’t worthy of its leading lady.

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