Within the past twelve months, Scarlett Johansson has been an alluring and rapidly expanding artificial intelligence in Her; a seductively murderous extraterrestrial in Under the Skin; and now, in Lucy, a superintelligent, post-sexual, sometimes deadly freak of evolution. For a woman who is two inches shorter than Woody Allen, this is some résumé. It’s obvious that the game but vulnerable waif of 2003’s Lost in Translation did not just grow up but has gone on to transcend the merely human, and in record time. Why this should have happened isn’t so clear.
Given the disparities in financing and distribution among the films I’ve just mentioned—which vary from the artisanal to the mega-industrial—as well as the differences among them in style and tone, it would be a mug’s game to rush into defining Johansson’s new screen persona, let alone to speculate about the wishes and anxieties floating about in the culture that might have coalesced to create it. As a mug, though, I will observe that the change began in 2010, when Johansson first played the comic-book character Natasha Romanoff, also known as the Black Widow, in the Iron Man and Avengers cycles.
Although Johansson has served as little more than an incidental attraction in these movies—much as the Black Widow herself has been mostly a supporting player in the Marvel Comics universe—these interlocked series enabled her to do something that Vicky Cristina Barcelona could not: reach a large enough percentage of the world’s population to register sociologically.
Thanks to the Black Widow role, the public for the first time entertained the possibilities of a Johansson who could not be measured precisely, there being, almost by definition, no such thing as a five-foot-three superhero. Her manner was now almost flippantly imperturbable, as befits someone who knows she can take time out for a cell-phone call while being interrogated and threatened with torture—this actually happened in The Avengers—and then, as if tired of the game, single-handedly squash her half-dozen captors. Perhaps most important of all, Johansson’s attitude toward her body changed. As the Black Widow, she treated her catalog of sexpot features as if they were so many pieces of the superhero costume: items that identified her but were something to have and use, rather than be. To the millions of fans versed in Marvel mythology, this aloofness from her own seductiveness was explicable not as the trait of a traditional femme fatale but as a consequence of bioengineering. The Black Widow’s strength, speed, endurance and longevity had been injected into her in a Soviet laboratory.
Once this image of Johansson was established—$1.5 billion in worldwide theater revenues for The Avengers did a lot of establishing—it was not improbable for other filmmakers to extend and complicate the fantasy she had come to incarnate. In Her, Johansson was unimaginably superior to the man with whom she’d been paired and ultimately felt a little bad about it; in Under the Skin, she preyed at will on the male humans around her and came to feel troubled by the practice; but in both films, she maintained the sound and appearance of an attractive woman only because that’s what men were looking for.
As the title character in Lucy, Johansson at least starts out as a female human being—one who enjoys her sexuality, too, to judge from the presence at the beginning of a boyfriend who is cute in a hulking way, though morally dubious and blatantly casual. What Johansson becomes, though, in her first starring role in a blockbuster, is the Black Widow in metamorphosis. She struggles through a violent new episode of bioengineering to attain perfect knowledge, or godhead, or maybe the ultimate hands-off romance, but at least a really nifty revenge.
An auteurist would ascribe this most extreme elaboration of her new image not only to Johansson (or her manager) but also in large measure to the writer-director of Lucy, Luc Besson. The auteurist would not be entirely unjustified. An unabashed entertainer, Besson figured out long ago that Godard was right: all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun. But whereas Godard took that to mean that he could supply the minimum requirement and then stuff in as many ideas as he liked, Besson mostly wants to throw in more guns, some chases, a lot of bright colors and comic moments, and then just one Big Idea, which usually has something to do with love. To his credit, the girl (or woman) never blends into the elaborately ornamental furnishings of his cinematic contraptions but is their uncannily powerful motor, whether she’s the high-fashion assassin of La Femme Nikita, the Supreme Being of The Fifth Element (born into our world as Milla Jovovich dressed in an Ace bandage) or, for traditionalists, The Messenger’s Joan of Arc.
* * *
In Lucy, Besson has dropped Johansson into Taipei (for reasons that perhaps only the production’s accountants fully understand) and ensnared her initially none-too-bright character with a stereotypical East Asian mob: bulky men with close-cropped hair, goatees and dark suits, who dwell in glass high-rises and wash the blood from their hands with bottled Evian. These people brutalize the terrified Lucy but then, by inadvertently overdosing her on a new designer drug, make her very, very smart, as well as fearless, enormously strong, preternaturally calm and no longer quite human. Her ensuing quest for full self-realization, serious payback and a lot more drugs—it’s all the same—takes her to Paris, where she calls on the awestruck assistance of a visionary neuroscientist (Morgan Freeman, playing the wisest-man-in-the-world role that used to go to Sam Jaffe) and a roughly handsome police detective (Amr Waked), on whom Lucy plants a single kiss, just as a reminder to herself, on her rise beyond the corporeal.
These events, like the dialogue, are cheerfully preposterous (“I’m colonizing my own brain,” Lucy informs the scientist) and guiltlessly violent (“We never really die,” she explains) and go down as refreshingly as a chilled summer cocktail. (I might have said “as easily as the drug merchants’ purple crystals,” but those make Lucy slam into the ceiling and emit blasts of light from her mouth. They also elevate her cerebral activity, which would not be optimal for watching this movie.) Employing an Osterizer style, Besson mixes in a bit of exorcism movie here, a funny stock-footage montage there, a dollop of vintage Friedkin, a dash of decade-old Tarantino, pulses the concoction with the sci-fi effects button and pours for your pleasure—which might be considerable, if you feel any affinity for Johansson.
Some critics in the past have found her more winning than impressive, more pleasant than adept; but in Lucy she makes the most of every moment of her character’s transformation. During a farewell phone call to her mother, she effortlessly holds the camera throughout a very long close-up, meanwhile touching on emotions that are both flooding into Lucy as never before and quickly receding from her self-colonized brain. When saying goodbye to her roommate in Taipei—a young woman as witless as Lucy herself used to be—she solemnly offers expert medical advice (this is the sort of thing she suddenly knows) and then, more to herself than to her friend, flashes the ghost of a kindly smile. To the degree that Lucy’s adventure is even temporarily plausible, let alone engaging, it’s because Johansson makes it so.
But again, what is the import of this new screen persona that Johansson has taken on? To get some perspective on her evolving image, let me take a quick detour into an even more lucrative summer blockbuster, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.