Correction appended, July 29, 2014
It's a fallacy, long rebuffed by science, that humans use only about 10% of their brainpower. But it is true about most summer movies. Pouring their wizardry into special effects and well-choreographed fights, warm-weather action films rarely challenge the viewer with grand notions or beautifully baffling imagery. Viewers who invest two hours in a superhero movie often leave feeling entertained but somehow dumber.
Luc Besson's Lucy is here to the rescue. The French writer-director-producer's new movie, about a woman empowered and imperiled by the explosion of a powerful new drug in her nervous system, kicks ass and takes brains. Besson creates a heroine whose rapidly expanding abilities make her the world's most awesome weapon. In the process, he promotes Scarlett Johansson from an indie-film icon and Marvel-universe sidekick to the movie superwoman she was destined to be. Taking place in less than a day — and synopsizing 3 million years of human evolution in a hurtling 82 min. of screen time — Lucy tops its only competition, Tom Cruise and Doug Liman's underappreciated Edge of Tomorrow, as the summer's coolest, juiciest, smartest action movie.
(READ: Corliss's review of Edge of Tomorrow)
The cleverness in Besson's film isn't in its pseudoscience premise — that Johansson's Lucy is transformed from a clueless American grad student to a genius and martial arts adept as her brain-use percentage skyrockets from 10% to 100%. No, it's in showing that from great power can come both genetic transformation and personal tragedy. While Marvel heroes live on in countless remakes and reboots, Lucy may not survive the toxic drug that makes her unique. But it does give her a glimpse of the big cosmic picture. "Life was given to us a billion years ago," she says in a voice-over at the film's beginning. "What have we done with it?" By the end, she'll show you.
Rated R for its dollops of violence, this female-glorifying picture not only shames all PG-13-rated summer spectacles for their wimpitude but also lures the audience into accompanying it on a third-act trip of ambitious movie madness. It begins with a vision of the first known hominid, the 3 million-year-old female discovered in Ethiopia in 1974 and nicknamed Lucy, then bombards you with allusive montages (say, of various species copulating) and the intricate drizzle of computer algorithms, and ultimately spirals into transcendent, Kubrickian speculation, all while satisfying the basic movie appetite for twists and thrills.
(FIND: 2001: A Space Odyssey on the updated all-TIME 100 Movies list)
In Taipei, Lucy's scuzzy friend Richard (Pilou Asbaek) saddles her with a locked briefcase to be delivered to the mysterious Mr. Jang (Choi Min-sik, the Korean star of Oldboy and I Saw the Devil). In a hotel lobby, Richard is shot dead, while five Asian heavyweights strong-arm Lucy up to Jang's corpse-littered suite. Rinsing the blood from a few recent murders off his hands, Jang orders her to open the briefcase. It contains four packets of a blue powder, called CPH4; it is, as Jang's English-speaking aide (Julian Rhind-Tutt) notes, "a drug the kids in Europe are gonna enjoy."
Lucy is sedated and wakes up with an abdomen scar; her belly has been sliced open to contain one of the four packets. She and three other unfortunates will be muling the drug to European capitals, spurring addiction, death and chaos ... unless — there's always an unless — Lucy can harness her gigabyte brain waves in the few hours she is told she has left to live.
A sadistic prison guard's kick to Lucy's stomach triggers the effects of the CPH4. With her brain power now at 20% (the rising numbers are flashed onscreen like intermittent basketball scores), she overpowers the guard, kills him and takes his gun, walks into the prison kitchen, kills the four guys there, steals one of their jackets to cover the blood stain on her shirt, goes outside, shoots a cabbie who doesn't quickly enough hop to her request for a ride, takes another cab to the hospital, where she strides into an operating room and, to persuade the doctors of their need for speed in her case, shoots the patient on the surgical table. (A quick scan of the patient's X-rays tells her he wasn't going to live anyway.) All this, which would be a long set piece in any other movie, takes about 4 min. Besson is in as much of a hurry as Lucy is.
In a Paris lecture hall, Professor Samuel Norman (Morgan Freeman) is spouting the 10% theory: that full use of our mental capacity can allow the earth's creatures "to go from evolution to revolution." (He must have just seen Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.) Norman also teaches that humans seek to continue the species either by reproduction or immortality. Lucy had the second option thrust upon her. Before flying to Paris for urgent consultation with Norman, she visits Jang, pinioning his hands to his chair arms with two knife blades and calmly explaining, "Learning is always a painful process." It is for her: on the plane from Taipei, her cells start breaking up, flying around her. The perfect machine she's become may be disintegrating.
She spends the rest of the movie in Paris, battling a couple dozen of Jang's thugs and trying to cope with or accept her potent, poignant new condition. At first delighted by her burgeoning skills and acuity, she soon realizes, by Googling the available literature at supercomputer swiftness, that she can't control her new power — that "all things human are fading away." She could be Dr. Jekyll turned into a destructive, nearly indestructible Mr. Hyde; or the scientist, played by Jeff Goldblum in David Cronenberg's 1986 The Fly, who tries to understand his unique metamorphosis even as he succumbs to it. Similarly, superwoman Lucy wants to hold on to her humanity. In Paris, she abruptly kisses the detective (Amr Waked) assigned to her. "Why'd you do that?" he asks, and she replies, "A reminder" — of what human emotion feels like.
(FIND: The Fly on the all-TIME Top 25 Horror Movies list)
Once in a while, Lucy indulges in the inane conventions of summer action films. How is it that, in Taipei, Lucy can read Jang's mind (to discover the identities and itineraries of the drug mules sent to Berlin, Rome and Paris), yet on a Paris street she doesn't notice that her nemesis is 10 feet away? Because it's a movie! And why, when she's in a rush to meet the professor, does she insist on driving the wrong way on a one-way highway? Because it's a Luc Besson movie; most of the films he's produced, including the Taxi, Transporter and Taken franchises, are full of car chases and crashes.
Another of the Frenchman's fancies: making action pictures about women. In La Femme Nikita, Anne Parillaud is trained as an assassin. In The Professional, 12-year-old Natalie Portman helped hit man Jean Reno fulfill a contract. The Fifth Element, the filmmaker's biggest Stateside hit, paired taxi driver Bruce Willis with the galaxy's most ideal specimen, or speciwoman, Milla Jovovich. He also directed biopics of history's favorite insurgent heroines, Joan of Arc (The Messenger) and Aung San Suu Kyi (The Lady). Besson must figure that a gender comprising more than half the world's human population deserves to be represented playing at least 10% of the lead characters in action films. It'd be fine with me if Hollywood followed Besson's lead and upped the ratio to Lucy level.
In a role originally proposed to Angelina Jolie, Johansson grows from grad-student tearfulness to appropriate a good deal of Jolie's glowering majesty, and to show all appropriate stages along the way. In the recent British film Under the Skin, Johansson played an alien creature that soullessly seduces human males and harvests their meat. And in Spike Jonze's her she was the more-human-than-human voice of Joaquin Phoenix's operating system. Besson's film restores Johansson's humanity even as it may slip away from Lucy. The longest single shot is of a phone call Lucy makes from Taipei to her kindly, concerned mother (Laura D'Arista) back in the States. Tears flow from the actress's right eye, as if Lucy is being drained of all the emotion she has felt and will ever feel, and is weeping for the loss.
(READ: Corliss on Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin)
But don't weep for Lucy. Just keep track of her strange attributes: the sprouting of extra hands and gooey tentacles. Wonder at her lightning travels across space (she stands in Times Square as humanity zooms around her at a Koyaanisqatsi tempo) and time (when the oldest Lucy and the newest touch fingers in a Sistine Chapel–ceiling moment). And be appreciative that, toward the end of a summer with a lot of meh action epics, one film has shown how the genre can accommodate a crazy-great movie. Thank you, Scarlett, Luc and Lucy.
Correction: The original version of this story misstated the name of Morgan Freeman's character. It is Samuel Norman. The story also misspelled Milla Jovovich's name.