Johansson's 'Lucy' Shows Power Of Strong Women At The Box Office

It took a female action hero who uses more than 10% of her brain and kills her foes with the methodical precision of a Tarantino character to finally put a slight smile on the face of Hollywood executives fretting over the evaporation of their summer audiences, which have vanished as suddenly as the humans in the HBO series “The Leftovers.”

Director Luc Besson’s “Lucy” stars Scarlett Johansson in a decidedly embodied role, unlike her recent turn as the voice of an operating system in “Her” (at least until she turns into something resembling pure consciousness). It took in $44 million for Universal in the U.S. and Canada over its opening weekend, besting Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s “Hercules,” which sold a respectable $29 million worth of tickets here and looks to be strong in overseas markets for Paramount and MGM.

That was a sliver of relief to moviemakers, who fear that “the popularity of television and new technologies are altering viewing habits,” as Pamela McClintock wrote in the Aug. 1 edition of the Hollywood Reporter. And, as one observer pointed out to her, “moviegoing begets moviegoing,” suggesting that watching trailers actually moves product (in the process of making people squirm in their seats).

“The [summer] season is expected to finish down 15 to 20% compared with 2013, the worst year-over-year decline in three decades, and revenue will struggle to crack $4 billion, which hasn't happened in eight years,” McClintock reported. “As a result, analysts predict that the full year is facing a deficit of 4 to 5%.” 

“Lucy” exceeded analysts’ expectations — which were around $30 million for the opening weekend — despite somewhat so-so reviews from moviegoers themselves, Scott Bowles reports in USA Today. “The movie earned a thumbs-up from 58% of critics, according to survey site Rotten Tomatoes, and fans gave it a middling C-plus, says pollster CinemaScore,” writes Bowles.

Newsday’s Rafer Guzman believed the movie “begins promisingly, with Johansson in fine form as a terrified victim and Besson trying out an unexpectedly funny, almost Dadaist visual style.” But, he concludes, “in the end, "Lucy" is gobbledygook.” And he’s not just talking about the “bad science” that we humans only use 10% of our brains, as several observers including Angela Watercutter in Wired, have pointed out. (Director Besson says, “duh.” Having worked on the film for nine years, he’s well aware of the science but “the 10% is a metaphor in a way.”

Yet some critics, such as the Wall Street Journal’s Joe Morgenstern, were effusive. 

“At the height of Lucy's powers there is nothing she can't do — talk about a headstrong woman — and something of the same can be said for the film,” he writes. “It doesn't always keep track of its own logic, at least not for this 10-percenter, but it's gleefully bold, visually adventurous, often funny, strikingly concise—the whole heart-pounding tale is over in 90 minutes — and 100% entertaining.”

And that evidently proved attractive to a key demographic.

“Females made up 50% of all ticket buyers, while there was a large Hispanic turnout (29%, compared to 35% Caucasian), reports McClintock in a follow-up story on HollywoodReporter.com that points out, however, that the two action flicks “weren't able to cure the ailing box office.” North American revenue overall was down “by nearly 12% from the same weekend a year ago.”

“Lucy” is a “huge win” for Johansson,” wrote Forbes contributor Scott Mendelson. “Coming off her Black Widow roles in the Marvel universe and her acclaimed art house triumph in “Under the Skin,” this should be her first $100 million domestic hit outside of the Marvel universe.”

But Mendelson points out that “in the still somewhat small category of female-centric action films, this debut falls behind the “Hunger Games” films, the $54m debut of “Divergent,” the $50m debuts of “Wanted” and “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” and the $47m debut of the first “Tomb Raider” film.”

“It's a great result in a very depressed marketplace,” Universal distribution chief Nikki Rocco tells McCintock. “And I think it says that more female action stars are called for.”

Besson, who has a penchant for delivering strong female characters, has every intention of complying.. 

“I am interested in showing the strength of women and the weakness of men,” he recently told the New York Times’ Tom Roston. There’s box office in that, as “Lucy” clearly demonstrated.

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