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Scarlett Johansson action flick 'Lucy' illustrates the lure of the superdrug

Scarlett Johansson in the action thriller "Lucy," written

Scarlett Johansson in the action thriller "Lucy," written and directed by Luc Besson, in theaters July 25, 2014. Credit: Universal Pictures

In the upcoming action film "Lucy," Scarlett Johansson plays a drug mule who accidentally ingests the stuff and ends up developing superpowers. The chemical component, called CPH4, has some fairly impressive effects: hyper-intelligence, increased strength, even telekinesis. Johansson's Lucy isn't out to save the world, however. She wants revenge.

"Lucy," due in theaters next Friday, marks the latest movie about an enduring fantasy: the superdrug. In these stories, the science may be fuzzy (Morgan Freeman's Professor Norman does the explaining in "Lucy"), but that hardly matters. The selling point is the pill, potion or serum that can turn Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde, transform Steve Rogers into Captain America or change any one of us into something bigger, better and stronger. Though these movies often caution that there's a price to pay -- a crippling addiction, perhaps, or an overly active id -- the lure of the superdrug remains powerful.

"The audience wants to be a superhero but doesn't have the ability to," says Clay Chapman, a screenwriter and contributing author to Marvel Comics. "Taking a drug is the short track. If I'm not going to get bit by a radioactive spider, and I'm not going to find the ring that turns me into the Green Lantern, then maybe it's possible that some kind of designer drug could advance me to a next-level being."

Here are 10 movies about supersubstances over the years. Side effects may include increased amorousness, boundless energy and an exploding head.

THE NUTTY PROFESSOR (1963) Jerry Lewis' double-role tour de force centers on Julius Kelp, a nebbishy chemistry professor smitten by his student Stella (Stella Stevens). Thanks to a Technicolor potion, however, he can woo her as Buddy Love, a charismatic hepcat with arrogance to burn. ("Want some?" he asks, after making out with his own hand.) After the film's release, Lewis was surprised to find that Love got the most fan mail.

THE STRONGEST MAN IN THE WORLD (1975) Starting in the 1960s, Disney produced several movies about Medfield College, where the science department produced whimsical things like Flubber ("The Absent-Minded Professor") and an invisibility spray ("Now You See Him, Now You Don't"). Here, a chemical concoction mixes with the breakfast cereal of Dexter Riley (a young Kurt Russell), who develops Herculean strength. High jinks ensue, and the stuff also turns out to be a good gasoline additive.

SCANNERS (1981) Writer-director David Cronenberg turned the real-life horror of Thalidomide, a morning-sickness medication that caused birth defects, into this crude but classic science-fiction freakout. Here, a drug called Ephemerol comes with a peculiar side effect: the psychic ability to blow up people's heads. Cronenberg created his gore the old-fashioned way, filling latex heads with dog food and animal parts, then blasting them with a shotgun.

OUTLAND (1981) Peter Hyams' cop flick in space starred Sean Connery as a federal marshal investigating the deaths of titanium miners on the Jovian moon Io. Turns out, they'd been taking polydichloric euthimal, a kind of space-meth that accelerates productivity but (much like Earth meth) causes psychosis and death. Exploding heads were apparently popular this year -- "Outland" featured several.

LOVE POTION NO. 9 (1992) Just a few films into her fledgling career, Sandra Bullock starred in this comedy inspired by the 1959 doo-wop hit. She and Tate Donovan play nerdy scientists who discover an elixir with a wondrous power: When you speak, the opposite sex falls in love with you. Your own gender, however, will despise and perhaps physically attack you. Anne Bancroft makes a cameo as the Gypsy Madame Ruth.

THE MATRIX (1999) When Laurence Fishburne offered Keanu Reeves the red pill or the blue one, he crystallized the entire history of hallucinogens into one memorable pop-culture moment. Like peyote, LSD and various mushrooms, the red pill promised to unlock the prison of perception and reveal the world for what it truly is -- in this case, a massive virtual-reality grid patrolled by Hugo Weaving as the omnipresent Agent Smith.

HOLLOW MAN (2000) Springboarding off H.G. Wells' 1897 story "The Invisible Man," director Paul Verhoeven ("RoboCop") created his own version full of sex and death. Kevin Bacon plays Sebastian, a scientist who uses his invisibility (the result of a vaguely explained serum) to spy on women and even rape a neighbor. The movie performed well, but the ick-factor seemed high, even by Verhoeven's perverse standards. Christian Slater starred in a 2006 straight-to-video sequel.

UNDERDOG (2007) Only superfans of the 1960s-era TV cartoon will remember that Underdog replenished his powers with a Super Energy Pill. During the say-no-to-drugs 1980s, scenes of Underdog popping these red capsules were removed. The movie added them back in, but with a twist: Now the pills are manufactured by the evil Dr. Barsinister (Peter Dinklage), who feeds them to his henchdogs.

LIMITLESS (2011) Quick, name a drug that makes you more energetic, creative and confident. You might say cocaine, but in "Limitless" the magic stuff is called NZT-48. It transforms a layabout novelist, Eddie (Bradley Cooper), into a prolific writer, financial wiz and expert street-fighter. The comedown is a crusher, but imagine the high of being Stephen King, Warren Buffett and Bruce Lee all in one.

THE BOURNE LEGACY (2012) It didn't star Matt Damon and wasn't based on a Robert Ludlum book -- two unpromising signs for this entry in the popular espionage franchise. The plot centered on Jeremy Renner as a superagent trying to wean himself from the various pills (boringly called "chems") that give him his powers. You know things are bad when your best hope for recovery is a virus. Despite the movie's lukewarm reception, Universal Pictures is planning a sequel for 2016.

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