Under the Influence – ★★★
Luc Besson’s latest feature feels like a melting pot of four or five films – the Bradley Cooper vehicle Limitless, Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, Joe Wright’s Hanna, the Wally Pfister flop Transcendence and even a little bit of Besson’s own Leon. Whether it manages to live up to any of its lofty ambitions (Besson himself claimed in his script notes that he also pulled in some influence from Inception and 2001: A Space Odyssey) is really down to just how willing you, as an audience member, are to play along with things.
Scarlett Johansson plays Lucy, an American woman living in Taiwan who gets pulled into her boyfriend’s drug deal and ends up getting a bag of super-extra-bonus blue drugs surgically inserted into her stomach with the hope of using her as a mule. Unfortunately the bag punctures and her body ingests this synthetic drug and turns her into a super-woman. Now, rather than using 10% of her brain, her body gradually starts moving toward complete transcendent power of 100%. At first she develops immense physical power which turns into a ninja woman. Next up she gains the ability to control people’s minds and travel through phone lines and the like. Unfortunately this ability doesn’t allow her to transcend time and space (yet) so she has to spend a few hours flying to Paris to meet an expert in this kind of uber-brain activity (Morgan Freeman) – all the while topping up her body with the blue drug. Mmmmhmmm.
The film is incredibly daft. And incredibly stupid, shamelessly so. But for the most part, it manages to be a whole lot of fun. “ScarJo” – as the internet likes to call her – plays the part of the super-powered fish-out-of-water brilliantly. It’s impossible to separate the performance from her work in Under the Skin, but it lacks the trippiness and eerie nature of Glazer’s film but it will be fun to look back on as a companion piece in years to come. As the film draws to a close, Besson opts to go down the trippy sequence route but falls well short of The Tree of Life and 2001 in case you’re worried.
As a big summer blockbuster where the men are all a bit stupid and play supporting roles, it is great to see Lucy doing so well. Angelina Jolie’s film Salt did the same a few years ago, but its rare that studios actually take a chance on something like this and confirms to any doubters that Johansson is more than capable of carrying a movie.
It’s far from Besson’s best work – and the attachment of his name to a project tends to hold less and less weight as the years go on (Leon is 20 years old, The Fifth Element 17) – but it’s still a film that, unlike the infuriating Transcendence, puts entertainment first and foremost in the frame.
The science doesn’t add up, the philosophy is a load of bunkum but goddammit if I didn’t have a great time watching it.
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