It wasn’t on my list of “absolutely must see upon release” movies, but I was really looking forward to watching Lucy with Scarlett Johanssen last night. It was clear we were going to get a kick-ass female protag, with a twist of sci-fi wonder exploring what might happen if the human brain was kicked up to full capacity. That’s exactly what the movie delivered, but I was left feeling underwhelmed as the end credits began to roll.
To sum it up in geek terms: she became an epic level character in a world where the next highest character was maybe a level 5 Warrior. I guess Morgan Freeman’s character might have been around a level 7 Expert. For the lay-person, picture Captain America: Winter Soldier…without the Winter Soldier. Or anyone else with super-level abilities. Not much of a conflict. Twenty minutes into the movie, as soon as Lucy’s brain hits 20% capacity, she’s so much better than anyone else on the planet that there is no threat to her. So it doesn’t really matter when she hits 50%, 99%, or finally the very disappointing 100%. She made a plan and spent the entire movie executing it, without any obstructions.
The other key component that was missing was a relationship to care about. Without that, there’s no emotion. The only time I felt anything for Lucy was her terror when she was first taken and then during a short phone call to her mother right after she starts to change. I suppose the French policeman was meant to fill some kind of romantic role, what with her kissing him and saying she needed him as “a reminder”. Why him? They had literally just met, and there was no chemistry between them. How could there be, since she’d already lost her humanity? I was much more invested in her struggle in the first five minutes of the movie, a simple argument with a boyfriend, than I was in any other part of the movie…because I knew what she wanted, there was an air of unknown danger, and I could root for her against it.
All in all, it felt like the movie used some awesome special effects as smoke and mirrors to convince us there was something profound to be learned at the end of the story. The final line, a narrative voice-over as the camera pulls back for an epic shot of Earth, tells us “now you know what to do with [life]”. Maybe I was too busy laughing at the over-sized flash drive that was supposed to contain all the data from Lucy’s brain, but I never caught how her experience gave us the answer to that question.
So, writing take-aways:
- Make sure the heroine’s plan doesn’t always go as planned.
- If you’ve got a 20th level character, there’d better be a 20th level opponent around–even if you have to use the trope of the villain creating an evil mirror of the protagonist (which would have been entirely plausible in Lucy).
- Even if–especially if–your heroine is becoming superhuman, you’ve got to focus on her human connections to bring emotion into the picture. Otherwise, we just don’t care what happens to her.