Tag Archives: Luc Besson

CAPSULE: LUCY (2014)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Amr Waked,

PLOT: An American student develops godlike powers when she is accidentally dosed with an experimental drug.

Still from Lucy (2014)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: I’m unsure whether Luc Besson is just joshing around here or whether Lucy the worst premise for a seriously intended science fiction movie of the year, but even the sight of Scarlett Johansson morphing into a black tentacle biocomputer can’t compensate for the feeling that you’re using less and less of your cerebral capacity the longer you watch this movie.

COMMENTS: Lucy may be a looney lark, or it may be one of the dumbest sci-fi movies to come down the pike in quite some time. The premise, that human beings have areas of the brain they never use which might house great untapped powers, might have played in the 1970s at the height of the paranormal craze, but in the age of the Internet, everyone who can read an IMDB message board is aware that the old “humans only use 10% of our minds” canard is complete b.s. And of course, even if it were true that you could find ways to utilize more of your “cerebral capacity,” that wouldn’t allow you to flex your neurons on objects located outside your cranium, change your hair color, or commandeer cell phone signals. Lucy‘s plot device is just a trick to give its protagonist whatever magical powers she needs to breeze past her next obstacle. The science in this fiction is on the sophistication level of a Marvel superhero movie, except those omnipotent heroes are always given equally omnipotent villains to square off against. Here, there’s no one in the movie capable of even landing a blow on Lucy from the very first moment she develops her powers, which creates a very odd, tension-free dynamic. It’s somewhat to the film’s credit that this lack of inherent conflict doesn’t completely kill it, but the main way the movie soldiers on is by throwing another action or effects sequence at you every five minutes: Lucy telekinetically flinging gangsters around the room, Lucy commandeering a cop car and putting her 40% optimized cerebral capacity to work stunt driving down the streets of Paris. The movie’s emphasis on action set pieces is completely and ridiculously at odds with its supposed philosophical ruminations about human evolution and the nature of time. It ends with a totally irrelevant bloodbath shootout that makes no logical sense whatsoever.

To his credit, Besson does toss most of his kitchen appliances into the movie, leaving only the sink unthrown. The effects are spectacular and are clearly the only reason for the movie to exist. There’s Lucy’s spontaneous levitation, the curtain of multicolored beams she sees descending from the heavens which she can swipe and manipulate like a cell phone app, and the spectacular moment when her facial molecules inconveniently start to drift apart during an airline flight. Besson includes references to 2001: A Space Odyssey (ape men), The Tree of Life (dinosaurs), and the Sistine Chapel (by way of E.T.). Maybe the strangest touch of all is the revelation that the miracle drug in question is actually a pregnancy hormone (!) The most favorable way to see the movie would be as a Lucy’s dying hallucination as she lies poisoned by the ruptured bag of drugs in her intestine; it would justify a lot of the film’s illogic, and her dopey gnostic omniscience would then appear to be a sly satire on delusions of “consciousness expansion” and chemical enlightenment. Unfortunately, the only serious justification for that reading I can come up with is the fact that Lucy‘s speculations are too ridiculous to be taken seriously on their face.

Around here, we last noted Luc Besson working on The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec, a homemade French fantasy with a wealth of imagination undermined by a dime store CGI pterodactyl. The bi-continental auteur, who splits time between Gallic and Hollywood movies, follows up a great fantasy script with laughable effects with a laughable script featuring terrific effects. It’s almost as if he’s deliberately trying to protect stereotypes—American movies are big, dumb, and spectacular, while continental movies are smart but underfunded. C’est la vie, I guess.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the sheer weirdness of Lucy’s imagery—a telekinesis-assisted car chase, a USB stick containing all the knowledge of the universe, people growing animal limbs—prevents it from registering as run-of-the-mill summertime ‘dumb fun.’ It comes across, instead, as a directorial flight of fancy, an imaginatively goofy take on an already goofy idea, exaggerated by Besson’s blunt style and an uncommonly fast pace.”–Ignatiy Vishnevetshy, A.V. Club (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE EXTRAORDINARY ADVENTURES OF ADELE BLANC-SEC (2010)

Les Aventures Extraordinaires d’Adèle Blanc-Sec

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Louise Bourgoin, Nicolas Giraud, Jacky Nercessian, Gilles Lellouche, Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre,

PLOT: In 1911, novelist and adventuress Adele Blanc-Sec seeks an ancient Egyptian cure to bring her twin sister out of a coma; her plans are interrupted when she must deal with a pterodactyl who is terrorizing Paris.

Still from The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s more Spielberg-on-the-Seine than a weird movie per se.

COMMENTS: Adèle Blanc-Sec will probably remind you of those fantasy/adventure hybrids from the mid-1980s, movies like Big Trouble in Little China and Young Sherlock Holmes that mixed swashbuckling with the supernatural in an attempt to cash in on the cachet of Raiders of the Lost Ark. If you imagine Audrey Tautou’s Amelie Poulain cast in the role of Indiana Jones, you wouldn’t be too far off the style here. Assaying the title character from a popular series of French graphic novels, newcomer Louise Bourgoin (previously a weather girl) stars as a proto-feminist novelist/adventurer at the dawn of the 20th century, the era just before the myths and legends of the ancient past were scoured away by the mustard gas blast of World War I. Interestingly, although all of her foils are male, no one in the French patriarchy comments on Blanc-Sec’s gender. She’s so confident and forceful in her actions—always seizing the initiative and never giving anyone else the opportunity to object—that we really believe her sex is not an issue. Adele bumbles around like an absent-minded professor, blind to everything that is alien to her goal of resurrecting her sister from her coma, including the clumsy advances of a young scientist who’s smitten by her. Yet, she’s also incredibly composed under pressure, not even breaking a sweat when she’s captured by an oily nemesis in the middle of raiding a pharaoh’s tomb.

Bourgoin is excellent in the role, and what success the movie achieves is largely due to her performance. Visually, the movie is a mixed bag. The cinematography is great, the set design (from desert tombs to Adele’s apartment, cluttered with relics from her adventures) is fantastic, and director Luc Besson’s eye for composition is as imaginative as always. Unfortunately, when it comes to effects and makeup, Blanc-Sec is not up to contemporary standards, giving the movie a cheap, ersatz Hollywood sheen that detracts from the sense of wonder the movie is desperate to instill. The pterodactyl is fine in closeups, but when it’s animated in clumsy CGI, it looks about a decade or more behind current technology. The grotesque Halloween makeup is unnecessary; it’s purpose, it seems, is to transform the onscreen characters into the exact duplicates of the characters from the graphic novel. One character has ridiculous eyebrows, another has unnatural dark spots surrounding his eye sockets, and the nutty professor of parapsychology wears a liver-spotted latex mask that just looks wrong. The makeup all looks slightly uncanny rather than whimsically cartoonish, as intended. The comic plot tries very hard to entertain, with telepathic connections to dinosaurs, a Clouseau-esque investigator who accidentally talks into his shoe, and reanimated Egyptians who speak perfect French and are fond of pranks. In fact, if anything Adele Blanc Sec may try a little too hard to impress, coming off as desperate; but any movie that manages to fit both pterodactyls and mummies into its running time has something to recommend it.

France just doesn’t have the funds to compete with Hollywood when it comes to blockbuster international entertainment; even in its dubbed version, Adele Blanc-Sec barely played American theaters (although the film did well in the Far East, surprisingly, and managed to break even on its budget). The movie arrived unceremoniously on Region 1 DVD three years late, without fanfare, from specialty distributor Shout! Factory. In a small controversy, a brief and apparently inconsequential scene of Bourgoin bathing in the nude was not included in Shout!’s initial release (as it had been snipped from the U.S. theatrical print). Three weeks later, however, Shout! issued a “director’s cut” with the topless footage included, forcing early-bird cinephiles to double dip if they wanted to catch the double nips.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Matching lavish period sets to surreal visual effects, Besson has crafted a feast for the eyes – but while there is absurdity aplenty on display here, the film also requires a very high tolerance for the broadest of humour and the slightest of whimsy.”–Anton Bitel, Eye for Film (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE FIFTH ELEMENT (1997)

DIRECTED BY: Luc Besson

FEATURING: , Milla Jovovich, Gary Oldman, Chris Tucker

PLOT: 300 years in the future, an ex-special ops agent turned taxi driver must collect four stones and discover the fifth element to stop the universe from being destroyed by evil, with the help of a scantily-clad supreme being.

Still from The Fifth Element (1997)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTThe Fifth Element is unique and has its devoted fans, but although it’s much busier and more colorful than the average Hollywood space opera, in the end, it’s not so much weird as simply chaotic and overstuffed.

COMMENTS: You can probably gauge your tolerance for The Fifth Element according to your tolerance for antic comedian Chris Tucker and his amphetaminic falsetto.  Although he’s not a major player in the story, for better or worse his blond, over-coiffed, simpering talk-show diva dominates every scene he’s in, and is emblematic of the grotesquely overdrawn elements that populate Besson’s world.  Furthermore, his unnecessary presence is introduced through a senseless plot contrivance (the idea that this Oprah-on-a-galactic-scale pop icon would be obsessed with building a broadcast around a non-celebrity contest winner), which is itself symbolic of the way the script seizes any opportunity to shoehorn in any idea that occurs to it.  A few of those ideas include a future New York City grown up to the sky and jam packed with flying cars, Milla Jovovivh as a cloned carrot-haired “supreme being” wrapped in a tiny ace bandage, and Gary Oldman as a villainous comic-relief corporate honcho with a southern accent and a dedicated phone line to receive important calls from Ultimate Evil.  It’s insanely baroque, and the craziness itself is the glue that holds it together even as the wild story makes only a token gesture at sense, relying instead on the viewer to fill in the gaps through their familiarity with conventions of other blockbuster “save the universe” sci-fi epics.  Although it starts out looking like a Die Hard/Raiders of the Lost Ark hybrid set in space, at approximately one hour in comic relief completely hijacks the movie when Oldman’s Zorg threatening meeting with a high priest ends with him choking on a cherry and frantically punching buttons for random automated tasks on his desk.  The comedy never looks back, and this reliance on humor is the film’s ultimate downfall, because it is not very funny.  It’s filled with characters comically fainting, or being shut inside a collapsible refrigerator as Bruce Willis frantically tries to entertain multiple guests in his shabby apartment, or Chris Tucker delivering yet another incomprehensibly high-pitched monologue.  The movie is messy as hell, bouncing back and forth from action to comedy to spectacle to apocalyptic mythology with an eight-year-old kid’s enthusiasm and attention span, and that lack of focus may make the movie come off as mildly weird to those used to more disciplined Hollywood epics.  The Fifth Element has one thing unconditionally in its favor: the costume and set design is masterful, keeping the eye busy and delighted even while the mind wanders off the plot.  The background characters are all so punked out that the few clean cut authority figures stand out as the weirdos.  Although The Fifth Element is a cult movie some people treasure precisely because of its idiosyncratic flaws, which make it unlike any other would-be blockbuster, I can’t count myself among them.

With it’s overwhelmingly American cast and genre, there’s little that’s distinctively French about this movie except its director, Luc Besson, who had previously scored arthouse and critical successes with the stylish La Femme Nikkita (1990) and Leon [The Professional] (1994).  Nonetheless, it was the most expensive French made film to date, surpassing the great weird fantasy The City of Lost Children [La cité des enfants perdus].

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…one of the great goofy movies–a film so preposterous I wasn’t surprised to discover it was written by a teenage boy. That boy grew up to become Luc Besson, director of good smaller movies and bizarre big ones, and here he’s spent $90 million to create sights so remarkable they really ought to be seen.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (Cannes premiere)