Scarlett's Lucy Kicks PTSD in the Face in an Action Flick Where Women Win

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In the summer blockbuster Lucy, Scarlett Johansson plays a woman who is transformed by a synthetic drug that gives her access to 100% of her brain. With the drug's push she grows stronger, wiser and tougher in both primal and evolved ways. In the universe of the story, this allows her to triumph over assault, gun fire and a global hunt for her. Scarlett rocks the role with verve, a surprisingly steely badass power and a striking ability to single-handedly embody a wacky sci-fi concoction of creative theory, science and philosophy. 

Scarlett Johansson as Lucy
Image: Universal Pictures

Reviews are mixed. Some are calling it smart and fun. Others think it's sci-fi dorky and cheesy or dumb, needlessly violent, and importantly, as exploitive in its portrayals of Asians as criminals.  Most are hailing it as a triumph for Johansson though, and as proof that viewers are craving what Hollywood rarely serves us: powerful women kicking ass.

In watching Lucy I found myself agreeing that on the surface, one could decide that the plot is flimsy and the violence gratuitous. As Lucy gains access to her entire brain she can control her body, monitor or change every cell, experience the full freight of every memory of her own and others, control forces like gravity and the principles of matter, and eventually harness both time and space.  With that sort of power, why do you need a shoot-out, girl? 

Lucy does shoot, accurately and without remorse. She shoots the bad guys, men from the Taiwanese mafia who want their drugs back after implanting them in her body. She also shoots plenty of bystanders and barriers between her and her mission to get to the researcher, played by Morgan Freeman, who can understand what is happening to her brain.

Liberties with science aside, though, I was cheering for Lucy because  the story wasn't simply that of an action film that substituted Scarlett Johansson in a role that was written for a man, and it wasn't only a summer vehicle for a chick who can kick.  I understand why critics can only see this construct–with few exceptions it is all we have been given and the movie can't help but be compared to dude-centric action films as though that's the only possibility in the genre.

Lucy triumphed, and the film succeeded, separate from that. Lucy wins because her story is a particularly female story. Her violence is a deliberate reclamation of power following physical attacks, and a prophylactic against further violence against her as a woman.  

In fact, I see Lucy's story as a sci-fi depiction of PTSD, which so many women who have been raped, harassed on the street or in jobs, or physically or emotionally abused develop as a very sane response to inter-personal violence. PTSD is an enhanced brain function which can get stuck and become detrimental. All of the symptoms, though, are those of a brain trying to ensure survival. Those experiencing it may feel searing memories as the brain tries to commit to memory every detail so as to avoid trauma in the future, may not be able to sleep because the brain tries to stay vigilent against possible future attacks, and may have access to an overwhelming volume of emotions, thoughts and impulses as the brain works overtime making sense of the trauma. The problem with these protective developments is that they can outstay their welcome and become barriers instead of helpers to the brain's single-minded pursuit of survival. 

Lucy had the synthetic drug, though, to push her further, just as she hit the place PTSD would cap out for most of us. Lucy broke through. 

Seen in this context, the movie makes infinitely more sense. The first act is consumed with assaults on Lucy's body that are particularly gendered. She is put into danger by a shady boyfriend, her body is taken over by criminals, drugs are hidden in her abdomen in proxy of an unwanted impregnation, she is sexually harassed and threatened with rape, and ultimately physical abuse is what causes the drug to leak into her system. This is a specifically female plotline referencing real life dangers and assaults borne by women every day.

Lucy's asssault then is the prompt for the brain enhancement. It led her into and through PTSD and she came out on the other side of it as an undeniable victor free of what endangered her and connected full-circle to the female power that creates and sustains life.  All along the way she takes power back.

The film is deliberate in showing her going through these stages, down to calling her mother from an emergency room. Lucy is a revenge and triumph fantasy about transcending violence against women, and that's the context that makes all of the seemingly unneccesary violence make complete sense. 

If you don't see that context, the movie might be disappointing. I've heard viewers say one disappointment is they didn't like that Lucy doesn't gain warmth in her wisdom, that she seems robotic in the final act. That choice made perfect sense to me, though, in that Lucy is written to play against expectations that women are pre-destined to be nurturing life forces and in fact can't be while under attack. In one of the Morgan Freeman lectures (which offer the science-ish theories of the Lucy universe), he asserts that cellular life forces will take one of two paths. If an environment is safe, entities will reproduce. But if an environment is not hospitable, an entity will do what it needs to do to survive. Lucy, as the stand-in for women subjected to gendered violence in a seriously compromised culture, must choose the latter. The plot shows her solely motivated not to bear babies, but to tell her story. 

Sure, Hollywood loves guns and shootouts in beautiful foreign settings, and there is pandering to old action movie tropes in Lucy. Plenty of this film's pseudo-science and exposition fancies are imperfect if you want to focus on that. But I'll take her, this Lucy of increasing brain power, this Lucy who wasn't stopped as a victim and who didn't cap out in her healing. I'll cheer when her numbers bump up to 20-30-40 percent, and bite my knuckles at the immensity of her at 80-90-100. Shoot me for being thrilled that Scarlett Johansson is teaching Hollywood how we're ready to be treated in movies and in our theater seats, and maybe even on the streets – and what might happen if we're denied. 


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