Now You Know

“Life… we were given life 8 billion years ago… what have we done with it?”

This is – more or less – the opening line of Lucy, the new action thriller directed by Luc Besson. Scarlett Johansen stars as the average girl who unlocks higher brain functions including comic book style superpowers and virtual omniscience through accidental exposure to a powerful new drug.

I’ve read that the best teachers are not those who give the right answers but rather ask the right questions. Similarly, some of the most moving stories leave us wondering and in a way unsatisfied at the end of the book. The questions take residence in our minds, and we mull over what the dramatic events all meant, why the hero or villain made such choices, and what would have happened if…

I love stories that create strong questions. I like pondering the characters and their motives long after the last page. A good story can be made more powerful if it communicates a message or moral.

But there’s a pitfall to avoid when crafting such a tale: Write stories, not sermons.

Lucy fails in this regard.

The film often juxtaposed interesting imagery to tell the story – for example, flashing between cheetahs stalking prey on the savannah and the drug cartel toughs watching vulnerable Lucy when she enters their turf. That’s one way to show, one way to give the audience something very relatable.

But the dialogue and the narration… the actors might as well turn to face the camera and address the audience directly for some of these lines, since it’s little more than preaching at some key points. Morgan Freeman and Scarlett Johansen deliver their lines with the seriousness and intensity of professionals, but it was hard not to roll my eyes and groan.

“I’m going to find a way to share everything I’ve learned,” Lucy says, as she approaches a seemingly-infinite knowledge state.

“But will mankind even deserve such a powerful gift?” Morgan’s character asks.

(These quotes are paraphrased, sorry.)

And nowhere is this attempt at message-fiction more obvious than the ending. I’ll try not to spoil too much… but as the camera pans over a scene of violence and the brutal aftermath of the killing of one of the bad guys, Lucy repeats the phrase from the beginning: “Life… we were given life 8 billion years ago…”

This time she adds, “Now you know what to do with it.”

Really? I guess I’m meant to gun down drug lords? Because that’s what you’re showing me when you give that answer.

Or maybe I’m meant to unlock my mind (with drugs?) and become a calculating and emotionless death machine that can bend time and telekinetically move objects and people at will?

(I have to admit, time travel, omniscience and telekinesis would be a pretty sweet package. Sign me up.)

Sorry, Lucy, I applaud the attempt to make something meaningful and moving. I’m glad someone wanted their story to rise above the banal status of “action flick.”

But that film was made for munching popcorn and watching Scarlett dominate her foes with awesome powers, not a moral diatribe about the state of the human race.

Don’t overthink it… ah, too late.

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