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Lucy is a staunchly feminist film that sometimes seems terrified of feminism

Scarlett Johansson in Lucy
Scarlett Johansson in Lucy
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Warning: The following post contains plot details from the entirety of the film Lucy. If you want to experience the film without knowing what happens, please exit the premises now.

Luc Besson's new film Lucy is at once a feminist manifesto and a gleeful demonstration of the worst fears of those who bluster about how feminists desire a world without men (or whatever the rhetoric is nowadays). It presents a world where women are horrifically oppressed, then presents the flip side of that as an empowerment fantasy that gradually strips away anything human from the protagonist. It's a movie about how "succeeding" in the world, at least in traditional terms, largely means turning off anything like identifiable human emotion.

Make no mistake: Lucy is kind of a mess. The film leaps all over the place, and its third act wants to be rapturous but mostly comes off as tonally confused. (For instance, while Lucy is transcending time and space, it's not immediately clear why there also needs to be a gun battle raging in the hallway outside, except for the fact that an action film necessarily needs a gun battle.) But the film's flaws aren't flaws of underestimating the audience. They're flaws of sheer ambition, making it all the easier to sort of cheer for the film's whacked-out vision, even as you realize it doesn't entirely work.

Specifically, though, Besson's interest in archetypal feminist action heroes in the vein of Ripley from Aliens or many of his prior female leads gives way here to something slightly more complicated. Yes, Lucy gets to a place where she kicks ass and takes names, but there's always something disquieting about it. For Lucy, to become a badass action hero requires largely getting rid of her humanity.

Time and space

For instance, try considering Lucy as a kind of warning about what might happen if the patriarchy falls. It's clear this is not how Besson wants viewers to read the film. He seems thrilled at the possibility of everything Lucy is able to do. But it's entirely possible to read the film in this way, and it's equally fascinating. After all, in Lucy, destroying the patriarchy is less about a move toward true equality and more about a grim, humorless march forward that turns Lucy less and less human.

Lucy, played by Scarlett Johansson (who has had a wonderful streak of playing slightly off characters who may not be entirely human), is a normal young woman hanging out with her boyfriend when he sets her up to go in on a meet with a drug lord on his behalf. The drug lord's goons kill the boyfriend, and they turn Lucy into one of their unwilling couriers for a new drug. They insert a package of the drugs into her body against her will, and in the process of recovery, she's kicked in the midsection, releasing some of the drugs into her bloodstream, where they very quickly go about allowing her to access over 10 percent of her brain's capacity.

Yes, the bit about how we only have access to 10 percent of our brains is self-evidently bullshit, and Besson does himself no favors by doubling down on its insanity. (The film is broken up by moments when the percentage of her brain Lucy has access to flashes on the screen in large, bold type.) But Besson really wants to make a movie about giving his protagonist unexpected superpowers, so you sort of have to go with it. Is it really all that different from anything other movies in this genre ask us to swallow? (To be fair, it would be much, much easier to take if Besson didn't keep cutting to a professor played by Morgan Freeman discussing the fallacy as fact at length.)

One of the oddest of Besson's directorial choices is that in the early going, he juxtaposes Lucy's growing descent into trouble with footage of wildlife, including cheetahs making a meal of a gazelle. (At another point, he inserts a long sequence of animals having sex, apparently just because he can.) These cutaways unnecessarily underline Lucy's plight. It's as if Besson doesn't trust us to somehow understand it, or Johansson to sell it.

But the cutaways are almost completely stripped out later in the film. Instead, we see the drug colonizing Lucy's body, making her more than human. If Lucy was the prey at the hands of a male-driven system that saw her only to be used up and tossed out, then she is now about to become the predator. Instead of cheetahs overwhelming gazelles, we see Lucy overwhelming herself.

Transcend the patriarchy

Notice, for instance, that of the characters in the film, Lucy never once harms a woman after her transcendence. Indeed, she takes great pains not to harm the woman who is applying a new tattoo to the drug lord when she goes to visit him to track down the other packets (and, thus, add to her growing powers). Lucy is a woman on a mission, and she certainly befriends men along the way, including Freeman's character and a helpful police officer, but the obstacles between her and her mission are all men, too. And she doesn't find it at all problematic to gun them down or simply dismiss them with a flick of her hand. She's not even afraid to kill a man lying in surgery on an operating table, surmising that the surgeons couldn't get to all of the cancer anyway.

When she travels back in time to the dawn of humanity to re-enact Michelangelo's image of God touching Adam's finger, it's to do so with a distant female ancestor, the prehistoric human progenitor also known as Lucy. Her two most genuinely moving moments as she evolves toward something more than (or possibly less than) human come with her mother and her friend and roommate. Lucy is a movie where men are basically incidental to the true work of humanity's growth and change, which is left to women — even if it's the men who do most of the gun battling.

Over at The Dissolve, Tasha Robinson has written a terrific, convincing piece on how Lucy's evolution undercuts what the film tries to sell us, which is the timeless dream of the instant awesomeness upgrade. Lucy gets those superpowers, yes, but at the cost of everything that makes her human. Increasingly freed from her need to perceive reality via things like "time" and "matter," Lucy can simply no longer relate to mere human beings, who are limited by such perceptions. In Robinson's view, Besson misses an opportunity here. By turning Lucy into a god who eventually transcends time and space, he doesn't allow us to contemplate how what makes us human keeps us from being aliens or gods.

Yet even as I agree with this viewpoint — Lucy is frequently an incredibly frustrating protagonist to try to empathize with —  I find myself wondering if this isn't ultimately Besson's point. Lucy's last interactions with humanity as a normal human being are dreadful, horrible ones. She is betrayed and assaulted. Control of her own body is taken from her. And given a chance to turn the tables, she turns into an unholy goddess of vengeance. But, then, the film seems to argue, who wouldn't?

All of which brings us back to the beginning. Lucy is a film about smashing the patriarchy that also has some degree of ambivalence about what that might actually look like. After all, consider the figure that Lucy becomes: she kills or dismisses men without a second thought, she is in control of her sexual agency completely and implicitly, and she eventually evolves past men (and the rest of humanity) entirely. Then she deigns to leave humanity with a tiny gift that contains her vastly superior knowledge.

It's a film that takes great delight in her essentially co-opting a long series of tropes and storylines typically reserved for men in stories of this type, which is an old trope in the feminist action movie wheelhouse. But it's also not hard to look at that list of the things that Lucy becomes over the course of the film and see a long list of stereotypical things that, say, a so-called men's rights activist fears will happen should women wrest control of the planet from men. Even as the movie is delighting in its feminism, it's presenting Lucy's rise with a kind of hushed fear. Twist it just a degree or two, and it's easy to view the film through the lens of that fear, to see it as the worst nightmare of anyone virulently opposed to feminism.

Lucy smashes the patriarchy for a while, but that eventually gets boring. So, instead, she transcends it, becoming humanity's new god. And that, ultimately, is what makes Lucy worth seeing, even if it's a mess. What Lucy becomes is beyond men and women, beyond space and time, even. Besson thrills to that, just as he thrills to Lucy tearing apart the men who dare to oppose her. But in its most honest moments, Lucy also feels a kind of confused terror at what Lucy becomes and how little any of us matter in that story. It's the tension between those thrills and that terror that drives so much of both the film and its politics. Besson knows what kind of world he wants to live in; he also knows how incidental he will be to that world.