renay: Pink pony with brown hair and wings on a yellow background bucking hind legs in the air. (Default)
[personal profile] renay posting in [community profile] ladybusiness
Recently, I listened to an episode of Friends in Your Head, titled Plot Hole Criticism. One of the hosts made the point that a lot of the time, human beings just had a problem coming out of a theater unhappy with a film and don't like to say "but I'm not sure why." because not knowing is somehow shameful! As people, some of us latch on to superficial reasons to dislike a thing and never really dig into the critical whys. I, however, am not afraid to admit I came out of the theater going, "What the hell was that? Did I like that? No? Maybe? Sure, it had good parts. But as a whole? No. BUT WHY?"



There's a myriad of reasons why one might exit Lucy, Scarlett Johansson's latest philosophical/action science fiction film, with more questions than answers. There's the easy dismissal target for going, "10% of brains! BRAINS!". Why the silly premise that we only use 10% of our brains, which has been pretty thoroughly debunked, was used to anchor this film is anyone's guess. It sure makes for catchy marketing: good job, marketing team! One can quickly go, "Eh, I'll accept some pseudo science/AU reality where this is a thing.", which is absolutely what I recommended, otherwise this film will be a miserable experience. As I discussed with [personal profile] owlmoose the other day, it's not like people watch Iron Man for the excellent physics (and if you do, you're screwed).



Another reason is the tragically awful racism. The film's seeming ignorance that race could ever be a problem or an issue to tackle when dealing with a terrorized white woman in a Taiwanese city or while dealing with sprawling origin-of-humanity type questions is amazing. From the scenes where Lucy mercilessly guns down Taiwanese men to the seeming erasure of anything but white bodies in a narrative about the origin of species and evolution, the narrative seems pretty clueless. It doesn't realize that its dealing with issues of race at all in its rush to tackle larger philosophical issues about (white) humanity, presenting a white woman with the power to reach into limitless human knowledge as humanity's ideal. The ending, featuring Scarlett Johansson vomiting rainbows and a cameo by VANTABLACK, only doubles down on the parallels between the film's Lucy (white lady) and the hominid Lucy in a film denouement that makes me appreciate the downright straightforward ending of 1998's Sphere much more.

Anyway, the whole thing is so weird. I can't even figure out how to talk about the boggling animal cutscenes, which originally I wanted to dedicate at least two paragraphs to but now am mostly filled with thousands of question marks about. It's like Luc Besson thinks his actors suck at communicating horrific scenarios and his viewers are extra spicy ignorant, instead of just mildly ignorant about nature and how prey/predator relationships work. Lay off NatGeo, Besson.



The racism in the trailer was one of the things that kept me dubious about giving this film my money, as tumblr was abuzz about it as soon as the trailer dropped, outlining just how and why the selected scenes in the trailer were a problem. But, like some uncritical humans, Hollywood is also bad about using superficial reasons to declare films starring women failures. I debated up until the day I forked over the money, because the intersections here are complicated. Let's face it, if Lucy had tanked because we were all boycotting, it wouldn't have been because of Besson's crappy premise or the sheen of racism sparking all along the narrative courtesy of his subpar writing, but the fact that it was an action film helmed by a woman. I don't even think that the critics are wrong; in fact, some of the critiques based solely on the trailer don't go far enough because they didn't have the whole picture ("I mean, who speaks Chinese?" asks a white lady living in Taipei). But sometimes, we have to take what we're given and see it through, and call out the things that we can, and should, be better with, so more people can see the issues in the future. Hollywood doesn't critique itself on an intersectional axis. Hollywood can't seem to critique itself at all. Right now, that's up to the people consuming the content. But what's the best way? Is it to see the content and critique it with full knowledge of what it's done wrong? Or leave it aside and have the real reason we shunned it or found it lacking buried?



Lucy won its weekend against Dwayne Johnson in Hercules, which is extremely notable considering how established Johnson is as an action star. Lucy did it pretty solidly with Johannson carrying it along given everything working against it once you start watching. It's filled with racist gunk, gormless about neuroscience, but considering the glut of action films jammed down on throats every year with male stars that get a pass with much more overt racial problems, at this point I'm just glad it took the weekend. At the very least we can continue having conversations that films staring women can succeed and that it is not their inherent femaleness that makes them fail, but maybe, just maybe, the lack of creativity and imagination of the people creating the stories.



The marketing for this film cashed in on Scarlett Johansson's name recognition, given that the past few years she's made a name for herself establishing the Black Widow in the MCU. The trailers make this look like a straight-up science fiction action flick, playing to the same SF fanbase, where Lucy, forced into being a drug mule, gets a super large dose of the drug that allows human beings to access more of their brain's capacity and gains superhuman abilities. Then, the trailer would have us believe she wages a revenge spree with guns and special superpowers to impart justice on the men who forced her into non-consensual drug trafficking. Feminist triumph!

This is all fine for a surface read, but the film is attempting to delve deeper into issues of what makes us human and how we define being individuals. There's a definite tone and characterization shift post-drug deployment that changes the Lucy we meet initially into the Lucy that we follow through the rest of the film, and the deeper we go the further Lucy drifts from her ability to empathize with the suffering and pain of others. This is best seen as she gives a close friend health advice on her way out the door so her friend may survive, versus a desperate race in a police car through Paris, leaving death and destruction in her wake with no regard for the lives her journey to gain full access to her brain's capacity is costing people. What makes us ourselves? What divides human beings from gods? Luc Besson has an argument to make, but to me the whole thing comes off like he got drunk while watching Into the Universe and this is the result, because he leaves all the interesting philosophical questions about humanity and empathy on the floor in favor of arguments about time and gunfights and car crashes.



Of course, Scarlett Johansson and Morgan Freeman are way more talented than the material they're working with. It's fairly easy to just go with the flow and let them do their thing, because even though they can't hoist the material that high, they do give it a shot. Morgan Freeman can lend even the worst science a sense of grandiosity and depth, and Choi Min-sik's casual but horrific opening scenes were brilliant against Johansson's terror. Later, their positions are flipped and it's fascinating to watch the differences and how they play off one another. The acting is the only thing in this film that didn't make me want to claw at my face. I'm so sorry, actors. I'm so sorry.

Lucy doesn't function that well as an action film nor as a philosophical exploration of humanity and our place in the universe, because it seems to want to be both and have two magic beans, which is one too many for me. The trouble is that it doesn't want to spend enough time on either one of these and misses a lot of its marks, and fails to create characters we can truly root for. I think there's a lot more to to say about the racial notes in this story, too, that I probably just don't have the tools to unpack. I haven't figured out a great way to talk about the way Johansson starts the film and how she takes her character as far away from that woman we first meet at the beginning as possible. In a film that counts on us feeling and empathizing with the main character, the journey through the lack of empathy she takes is fascinating, but also off-putting. That comes to describe the whole venture in the end.

The moral of this story: don't bring a gun to a telepathy fight, and probably wait for VOD/DVD unless you want to make a political statement about women action leads being able to put bodies in theater seats.

Date: 2014-07-31 09:52 pm (UTC)
bookgazing: (Default)
From: [personal profile] bookgazing
See this is why, even though it's currently in my We Want It' section, I'm not convinced about seeing it in a cinema. At the same time I'm watching Extant, which means I have to give Amazon my money, for very similar reasons - I want more stories about female astronauts, female-helmed SFF productions + Halle Berre in everything and no one else is making that right now. I think we end up making a lot of monetary compromises because any deviation from support, support, support (even of work with intersectional issues or work created by bad corporations) ends up being interpreted as 'women don't sell'. I also find that to support female narratives I have to make way more compromises with visual media than with books because of access issues (geographical restrictions, services I can pay for, cinema availability).

Date: 2014-08-01 01:23 am (UTC)
owlmoose: (marvel - peggy carter)
From: [personal profile] owlmoose
I saw a similar debate on Tumblr, when someone made a post about how everyone had to watch Agent Carter, regardless of quality, because if the ratings tank it'll be 20 years before Marvel tries another female-led property. And some folks replied that they had no desire to force themselves to sit through a terrible TV show just for the sake of principles. And I have sympathy for both sides of this debate, really. In an ideal world, all I would ask people is to give a female-led show/book/movie/whatever the same level of chance they would give a similar male-led property, but I'm afraid, for Hollywood, that it wouldn't be good enough. (All signs so far point to Agent Carter being actually good -- we knew a lot less about the show when that discussion took place -- but still.)

Date: 2014-08-01 09:52 am (UTC)
bookgazing: (Default)
From: [personal profile] bookgazing
I think people (lots of dudes) often come to these kind of discussions with automatic expectations that they will be terrible and they'll have to throw down the 'I wish I could support it, but quality' argument, which seems to be growing in popularity as more female led shows appear. They're already starting from a point of negativity, so if a show opens and it isn't the second coming they're already set up to jettison it really quickly. But then I've been re-reading 'It's not an Artificial Heart, it's a Real Heart' so maybe I'm just bitter.

Date: 2014-08-02 06:50 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] theliteraryomnivore.wordpress.com
Yeah, that's pretty much what I expected, except that I am not so acquainted with Besson as a totally bonkers filmmaker, so it went way farther than I anticipated.

It's hard, because, as you and Jodie have pointed out, passing up Lucy because of its racism will convey not the message that audiences don't want to see racism on-screen, but the message that audiences won't want to see women as action protagonists. Such hideous double standards.

Date: 2014-08-23 05:20 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] susanhatedliterature.net
Lucy only opened this weekend here so I went to see it, I'd heard stuff about the racism floating about tumblr, but I tend to try and avoid people talking about a film if I think I might go see it. So pretty much all I knew about this was that the plot was based on the crazy (and hugely debunked) theory that we only use ten per cent of our brain. I don't think I even say a trailer for it.

I have to say that I enjoyed it for its insanity. It is just pure nonsense, and pretension and it attempts to be intelligent and fails so spectacularly. I know it has huge problems with race and well, loads of things, but I still liked it. I could wish for a whole heap better, and I do wish for that, but for a bit of utterly mindless entertainment I thought Lucy did the job.

Somebody really needs to hit Luc Besson over the head with the fact that history is made up of a hell of a lot more than white people though.

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