It’s a rare event to be able to witness a star go into supernova. Not every star can do it. Most don’t put out enough heat. Nearly all are too small. The conditions have to be exactly right.
It’s been a slow build, but with the release of Lucy last weekend, Scarlett Johansson has gone into supernova.
As a star vehicle, Lucy is first class, offering Johansson the opportunity to combine all the disparate parts of her onscreen persona into one character, and she more than lives up to the challenge. But as smart as Lucy is about its star, it just can’t seem to help falling back onto the same xenophobic stereotypes that plague much dumber films. Even as it plumbs the depths of the universe for Johansson, Lucy seems thoughtlessly bound to the least desirable elements of the known world when it comes to its Asian setting and cast.
Lucy is the story of a woman who accidentally ingests a drug that will give her access to 100 percent of her brain’s capacity. As her mind grows, so does her power, and with it she slowly unravels the laws of human nature. It’s more magic than science, but at the movies a little magic is always welcome.
First, Lucy’s developing mind gives her complete control over her body. It’s a famous body, an iconic body even, this generation’s answer to Marilyn Monroe. It can be hard to remember that there was a time before Scarlett Johansson was The Body, when she was just the little girl from The Horse Whisperer. There were only two years between the awkward teen of Ghost World and the pink panties of Lost in Translation, but the gaze of the public offered no time for a learning curve.
For a while Johansson seemed uncomfortable with her new role as sex symbol. She did voice work, odd character pieces like A Good Woman, standard “girlfriend” roles in movies like In Good Company. And then came her partnership with Woody Allen.
It’s one of the great ironies of their collaboration that he—such an amusingly unsexy filmmaker for much of his career—should be the one to help realize the erotic potential of Scarlett Johansson. But their collaboration was a fruitful one. She gave him sex appeal, and he gave her a place to work out what being The Body could mean.
The collaboration ended, and she signed on with Marvel as the Black Widow for a series of Marvel Universe films, beginning with Iron Man 2. But where most of the Avengers cast are aided with special effects, supersuits, and superpowers, Johansson’s character Natasha Romanoff is left to wirework and her own devices. She looks good, but looking good is just the mask—every kick, every twist, every jump is a reminder that what makes Johansson’s figure extraordinary is not what it looks like, but what she can do with it.
So she had a brain and a body, and if the two didn’t always seem to be functioning in the same plane, well, we had only reached 20 percent of the capacity of Scarlett Johansson.
In Lucy, once our title character achieves complete mastery of her body, her mind continues to expand, encompassing all emotions, every feeling she has ever felt or that a living creature could feel. For Johansson, expansion meant a trip to the stage, with two Broadway engagements—first with Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge, which earned her a Tony Award, and then in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
Johansson isn’t the first actress to come back to Hollywood from the stage with a new focus, but to say that her abilities seemed to be expanding rapidly was an understatement. The difference between the actress of Iron Man 2 and The Avengers is like night and day—Johansson had always displayed physical, emotional, and intellectual capabilities, but for the first time they were all focused in the same direction, for the same purpose, with the complete confidence of a star who had learned to control her own power.
We’d hit 40 percent capacity.
In Lucy, this is when the film becomes complete and glorious mayhem. Lucy can control matter, and all the rules of existence are abolished. She can reorganize her own molecules, make computers with her brain, talk to dinosaurs. She rewrites the laws of man and nature to accommodate her desires.
Johansson’s powers are more limited, but only by degree.
In the last two years she has been a computer, an alien, the perfect dime Jersey girl femme fatale, and now queen of the universe Lucy. Each film, whether it’s a multimillion-dollar international enterprise or a passion project directed by a music video genius, is utterly indebted to her presence. It’s not just that she fulfills her role, but her presence in each film actively expands the possibility for what that film can accomplish.
Lucy, then, plays as an extraordinary match of project and performer—an almost meta reflection on the seemingly infinite capabilities of its own constantly growing star. And it has damn fun doing it. Forget if it’s dumb or if it’s smart dumb or whatever people have taken to calling it. Lucy works, plain and simple.
And that’s great. But for a moment, let’s imagine Lucy without Scarlett Johansson. Let’s say Blake Lively or Rosie Huntington-Whiteley played Lucy, after all they are both pretty blonde stars with a similar all-American appeal. Without Johansson there to put Lucy’’s metaphysical money where its mouth is, what would the story look like?
Lucy is an American tourist abroad in Taiwan. She’s having a reckless affair with a seedy stranger, and he traps her into doing a drug trade. She is terrorized, kidnapped, operated on, sexually harassed, and beaten by the Taiwanese mafia. These men have no names, no discernable motivations, no relationships to each other or anyone else. They speak in their own language, which often goes unsubtitled. Their insatiable lust for Lucy ends in rejection, and they respond with senseless violence, and it’s this violence that prompts Lucy’s transformation.
When Lucy is demonstrating her power to the audience, it is through violence toward these (brown) men. In some cases, it is through violence toward wholly innocent members of the Taiwanese population. Despite the fact that she is an American in Taiwan who has not taken the time to learn the language, she shoots a cab driver for not speaking English—a big laugh in my, and I would assume any, American theater. She also shoots a Taiwanese man on an operating table—his wound is going to be fatal anyway, her health is more important.
Luc Besson is generally a savvy director when it comes to cultural politics. Once we arrive in France, Morgan Freeman arrives as the world’s top neuroscientist, and Johansson’s love interest (of a sort, anyway) is played by the Egyptian actor Amr Waked. He is as honorable as she is powerful, the identifiable human foil to her god—and we are encouraged to watch the mayhem through his eyes.
But the politics of East and West remain fraught with tension.
As the international market exerts its influence over Hollywood, it has become increasingly common to see big studio films that are set in Asia or which star Asian performers. Sometimes, this can be a good thing, as in last year’s Pacific Rim, which included the Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi in a lead role. But more often, the inclusion of people of color is limited or mitigated by oddly retrograde cultural politics.
There was last year’s Wolverine, set in Japan, and with a bevy of Japanese performers in leading roles. But those performers were limited to stock types—the wilting wallflower love interest, the spunky samurai—and they were all beholden to the white guy star, who ruled the proceedings with a grim authority wholly unsuited to Hugh Jackman’s talents. Even more likely is the Godzilla trajectory—set the film in an Asian city, hire Asian actors as glorified set dressing, and then casually mow them down along with the buildings to remind the audience that despite the white star’s continued survival, the destruction is “real” at least for the brown people.
Hollywood’s apparent uneasiness about the American public’s tolerance for non-white actors is nothing new, and there’s nothing wrong with non-white non-American actors playing villains when those villains are developed beyond being the dangerous Other. Lucy might not even be the worst offender, but do we really want to be making the same excuses for our films in 2014 as we might have in 1914 when D.W. Griffith was making movies about the dangers of Chinese immigrants?
Lucy’s villain, Mr. Jang, is played by the South Korean star Choi Min-sik, a marvelous actor who has played great villains in the past—particularly in the films he made with South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook. In Choi’s hands Mr. Jang is exactly the casually cruel terror he needs to be. It’s just a shame that in a movie that seems to have infinite reserves of imagination on hand, a movie that quite literally opens a whole new world for Scarlett Johansson, no one could conceive of giving Choi a part that was worthy of his time.