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

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

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.

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