Let’s be honest, who among us hasn’t sat down at their desk one day and thought, “Maybe I should write a story that’s terrible in every possible way?” That must have been the process behind the 2014 action film Lucy, because I can think of no other way to explain how else a movie could fail so badly. Not even the star power wonder team of Scarlett Johansson and Morgan Freeman could save it. It’s an awful bit of entertainment, suited only for “so bad it’s good” parties with your snarkiest friends.
On the bright side, Lucy’s failures are so textbook that they provide a handy guide on how to avoid such problems in our own work. Even though Lucy is a film, these are wide-ranging problems that apply across all storytelling mediums. We’re talking systemic structural flaws, not details about camera angles or fight choreography.
Spoiler warning: this post has spoilers for Lucy, if you care for some reason.
Give Your Story Racist Undertones
Lucy starts with a Taiwanese drug cartel kidnapping a number of white people, including the main character, to serve as drug mules. This raises several logical flags. First, why kidnap people to be drug mules? People in real life are drug mules all the time in exchange for a relatively small amount of money. This cartel clearly has plenty of money, so why would they resort to a tactic that’s so much more likely to make their victims go to the police? To be clear, drug cartels in real life use all kinds of terrible coercion to get people under their thumb, but it’s rarely as upfront as saying to a stranger “Carry these drugs over the border, or I will shoot you in the head.”
The second logical problem is that if you’re trying to avoid police attention, the last thing you should do is kidnap a bunch of white people. If nothing else, the Taiwanese authorities would be worried about damage to their tourism industry. We still live in an unequal world, and law enforcement definitely takes notice when white people go missing.
So we have an Asian cartel that uses risky kidnap victims instead of locals they could much more easily control. That’s certainly dumb, but where’s the racism? The problem is that Lucy plays into the idea that foreigners, particularly foreigners who look different, are out to get us. It’s even more pronounced because the main character is an attractive white woman, and intimidating Asian gangsters threaten her with sexual assault. When the gangsters need someone to test their drug on, they even bring in a white addict, then shoot him in the head when he’s served his purpose. I guess no one in Taiwan does drugs?
It’s not that stories can’t portray conflict between people of different ethnicities, but there must be proper context for it. As stated, there’s no logical reason for the cartel to be targeting the people they are. In the absence of a credible plot, the more instinctual parts of our brain start to take over, and they supply us with all the racist imagery we’ll ever need.
We’re fortunately at a point where most storytellers know not be blatantly racist, but there’s still plenty of room for our innate prejudices to leak in.
Assume Your Audience Is Stupid
Lucy’s story is based on the myth that humans only use 10% of their brain, and the characters will not stop talking about it. Not only is this myth completely untrue; no one even knows for sure how it got started. This is like having the premise of your movie be that the earth is flat* or that vaccines cause autism.
It’s one thing to use something that doesn’t exist as the basis for your story. We do that all the time, be it in the form of sorcery, physics defying FTL drives, or Gandalf not using those damned eagles to fly the Ring to Mt. Doom. As in the previous section, it’s all about context. You could have a story about unlocking the full potential of the human mind, but it should be in a context that’s different than ours.
Lucy purports to take place in the real world. It uses a bunch of vaguely scientific sounding mumbojumo in a desperate attempt to convince us that, yes, 90% of your brain meat is currently going to waste. It’s so bad that not even Morgan Freeman can make it sound credible, and that’s only the first bit of stupidity the movie asks us to swallow.
The plot is also riddled with inconsistencies, illogical decisions, and stuff that just doesn’t make sense. Why does Lucy shoot a cab driver for the crime of not speaking English? Why does the cab driver she holds up at gunpoint wait patiently outside the hospital for her? How does a small army of Taiwanese gangsters with automatic weapons and rocket launchers get into Paris without anyone noticing?
The filmmakers either didn’t see these problems or didn’t care. Either way, they’ve got a final product that will irritate anyone who thinks about it for more than two seconds. This is never a good idea, especially for aspiring authors out there. If you treat your audience like they’re stupid, they’ll resent it. At best, you’ll end up with bad reviews. At worst, no one will even bother finishing your work.
Then there are the people who don’t know any better and will believe you when you make a claim like humans only use 10% of their brain. At that point, you’re just spreading misinformation. Not cool.
Don’t Explain Major Plot Points
Imagine if Lord of the Rings had contained no explanation of the One Ring’s origin. Gandalf had just told Frodo “Hey man, that ring’s bad news. You gotta throw it into a volcano.” That’s how Lucy plays.
The drug that lets Lucy unlock the remaining 90% of her brain* is never explained. Who made it? Why? For what purpose? Even the evil drug cartel doesn’t know where it’s from. It’s randomly handed to Lucy by some guy who tells her to give it to the cartel. He’s then shot dead. Who shot him? Again, we never find out.
The movie glosses over the creation of a drug that can turn humans into gods. In the filmmaker’s mind, that apparently wasn’t important. The entire premise of the film wasn’t worth a minute or two of screen time. It’s also not clear why the cartel wants to sell this drug on street corners, but that’s a relatively minor infraction by comparison.
I cannot stress enough how much you should not do this in your own work. Introducing a major plot point, like a drug that gives you superpowers, sets up an expectation. The audience will want to know what’s up with that plot point, and they will be upset if you don’t deliver. When your entire story hinges on something, you’d best be prepared to show some detail.
Drown the Audience in Exposition and Filler
Lucy manages to be one of those rare stories that provides both not enough and too much information. While there was no time to explain the superdrug’s origin, there was plenty of time for Morgan Freeman to go on and on* about how humans using only 10% of their brain is totally science. Also about how dolphins can use 20%, which is what gives them echolocation? I swear I didn’t make that up. When Freeman isn’t expositing, Johansson is – and mostly on the same subject. The film really wants you to understand that humans need to use more of their brain, I guess.
Even when there’s no one around to exposit at, the characters have a tendency to narrate their own actions. This is incredibly annoying. It makes you want to ask, “Who are you talking to?” Characters only do this because the filmmakers weren’t sure that visuals alone would explain what was happening. They weren’t confident in their ability to show, so they had to tell.
There’s also a lot of what looks like stock footage. Random cutaways to animals on the Savannah or humans performing some sort of culturally significant ritual. It might not actually be stock footage, but that’s what it looks like. I can only assume it’s supposed to make the film seem more intellectual. Freeman will say something about human potential, and the camera cuts to a freeway being built. Deep.
Except not because all it does is distract from the action. Lucy is only an hour and a half long. It doesn’t have room for all this junk. When you’re crafting your own stories, remember, the story isn’t finished when there’s nothing more to add. It’s finished when there’s nothing left to take away.
Exposition is sometimes necessary,* but you need to be very careful with it. If your beta readers’ eyes start to glaze over, you’ve put in too much. Remember that you don’t have to belabor the same point over and over again. Your audience can usually remember the first time. There will also be moments to break away from the main action. Stories don’t always have to speed away at a supersonic pace. Just make sure those moments of calm add something important to the story. They can further character development, establish an important fact about the world, or just give the audience a chance to catch their breath. They should not be a distraction.
Don’t Explain What the Main Character Is Trying to Do
So, Lucy has superpowers from this mystery drug. She also only has 24 hours to live, for reasons. The tension has been cranked up to eleven. She’s got less than a day to do…something. It’s not clear what, but she’s in a real big hurry to do it.
At first, I assumed she’s trying to figure out how not to die, but that isn’t the case. Instead, she keeps talking about passing on the knowledge she’d gained, except the film never shows her gaining any knowledge. Mostly what she gains is superpowers. Maybe she’s going to pass on the knowledge of having superpowers?
This is pretty important because it’s the entire impetus for the big climax. For another Lord of the Rings metaphor, imagine if the characters kept saying they had to get to Mt. Doom, but they never explained what Mt. Doom was or what they were going to do when they got there.
At the end of the movie, Lucy gives Morgan Freeman a flash drive that I think is supposed to contain her knowledge, but it’s still not clear what that knowledge is. Then she disappears and becomes…a disembodied entity I think. Again, nothing about this was established in the film, so your guess is as good as mine.
There can be value in hiding a certain amount of information from the audience, but this has gone too far. Watching the movie is unpleasant because you can’t identify with the main character’s quest. When she completes that quest, it’s unsatisfying because there was no effective build up.
A lot of beginning writers make this mistake, thinking their story will be more interesting if they keep information secret. Instead, they end up turning the audience away because it’s impossible to tell what’s supposed to be happening. If you’re not writing a mystery story, it’s best to err on the side of transparency. The audience needs to know enough about what’s going on that they wonder what will happen next. If you are writing a mystery, then make sure the audience at least thinks they know what’s going on; otherwise, the twist won’t mean anything.
Make the Villain Vastly Underpowered
Lucy is an action movie about a woman who gets superpowers from a drug. Naturally, one of the bad guys is also going to get superpowers from the drug, and then they’ll have a show down. Not the most original plot I know, but dependable. Wait, no, that doesn’t happen. So, the bad guy will have some kind of kryptonite type weakness of hers to exploit. No?
To be clear, the villain in Lucy is a cartel boss with no powers against a woman who can manipulate reality with her mind. Confrontations between them are about as one sided as you’d expect. She defeats his goons so easily that it sucks all possible tension out of the story. This might not be a problem if so much of the movie didn’t consist of cartel goons trying to kill the main character.
The final fight scene only works because Lucy is concentrating on something else while her french cop buddy* fights the gangsters. Except even that is stupid because it would have taken Lucy two seconds to disarm all the bad guys and then get back to her work.
This is the opposite of how a villain should work. The main antagonist has to be threatening on some level, or what’s the point? If the audience has no reason to question the outcome of a story, they’ll get bored and walk away. Making your bad guy strong enough is storytelling 101, but sometimes even the pros manage to mess it up. Just remember, if your main character can brush past the villain like they aren’t even there, you might have a problem.
Sadly, this list doesn’t cover everything that’s wrong with Lucy, not by a long shot. It’s an epic failure of a movie. Of course, it did manage to make money, but that’s mostly thanks to Scarlett Johansson and a multimillion dollar special effects budget. Unless your story has Scarlett Johansson and a multimillion dollar special effects budget, you would do well to learn from this cavalcade of failure. We small timers don’t have the luxury of being paid absurd amounts of money for terrible work.
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