Bioethics, healthcare policy, and related issues.
No doubt most readers are familiar with the old urban legend about how humans “only use 10% of our brains”. It’s embarrassingly dumb (the most vital organ in the body – and the one responsible for the extraordinarily high rate of death in childbirth, due to its large size, evolved to be 10x larger than it actually needs to be?; and how do we determine just what percentage is being used?), but it persists. (I once attended a lecture in which the speaker seriously insisted that “Albert Einstein used 20% of his brain.”) It returned last week in the form of Lucy, an undisciplined sci-fi action thriller directed by Luc Besson, starring Scarlett Johansson as an ordinary human who is fortuitously accelerated to using larger and larger percentages of her brain until she transcends reality itself.*
In a kind of manic defiance of science-fiction convention, Besson makes no attempt to make the basic factual premise of his movie even sound like it could be true, and fills much of the plot development with shootouts and a truly inspired extended car chase/crash scene. But he is so wedded to the notional groundwork of the film that he includes a numerical readout of the percentage of brain use Johansson achieves at each point in the plot, repeated House-style digital animations of synapses and molecules in action, and an honest-to-god full-length formal lecture from a scientist, complete with slides and a Q&A session. The result is a mess, with unnecessarily pretentious overtones, but still kind of fun.
SPOILER ALERT [Spoilers Below the Jump]
Lucy opens with a narrative, in Scarlett Johansson’s voice, informing the audience that life arose one billion years ago [sic] and asking “What have we done with it?”. This is accompanied by a frenetic, Koyaanisqatsi-like crosscut sequence of shots of human beings doing mundane and seemingly trivial things. This, it turns out, will mean something later, if the entire movie means anything, which director Luc Besson is clearly certain it does.
The first real scene shows Scarlett Johansson arguing with her ridiculously skeezy boyfriend outside a luxury hotel in Taipei. He wants her to make an obviously illegal and dangerous dropoff of a locked briefcase to some underworld characters who have paid him to do this, but whom he is afraid to face. He forces her to do the job for him, with the immediate result that he is shot to death as punishment, and she is taken captive by a violent druglord and his minions. They knock her out, cut her open, and slip a large plastic package of a newly-synthesized drug that looks like toilet bowl cleaner into her abdominal cavity. (Another captive is forced to snort two tiny crystals of the drug. He immediately goes into convulsions then begins tripping, so we know it’s powerful.) The same is done to three random Eurotrash; all four are then given passports and (Economy-class) airline tickets, and told to deliver themselves to various European capitals where the drugs will be cut out of them, on pain of their families being murdered. On the way there, Johansson is diverted for no apparent reason to a filthy dungeon where she is beaten and kicked in the stomach, tearing open the package and spilling large quantities of the drug into her body. She goes into convulsions, then floats up the wall of her cell, and instantaneously develops unspecified abilities including unstoppable skills in martial arts and weaponry. She contorts/kicks/shoots her way out of lockup and heads off into the night.
While this is going on, the film intercuts repeatedly to scenes of Morgan Freeman, playing a top neuroscientist, giving a long, surprisingly straightforward scientific lecture to a packed hall. The lecture serves to establish the premise of the film: humans only use 10% of their brains, and Freeman speculates on what would happen if we could cultivate the remainder. As noted, the “10%” canard is a crock, but it’s literally the least crazy thing in this film. Freeman’s lecture takes it as a factual premise and then proposes that if we could learn to use “the rest” of our brains, we could read people’s minds (20%), develop new senses (30%), and alter matter (40%). He says that, beyond 40%, it’s impossible even to contemplate what could happen, but it might include traveling through time and space. There’s a question session in which an audience member asks the inevitable: what happens at 100%? Freeman looks overwhelmed at even imagining such a possibility, but answers in an awestruck tone that it might alter the basic structure of the universe.
What’s really odd about this sequence is that it’s played so seriously. It obviously is just exposition, setting out the premise of the movie to explain what follows, but Besson gives it a weirdly severe gravitas by playing it straight. Instead of just dropping some science (!) during a casual conversation between two characters, like most movies, or even inserting a jokey explanatory cartoon, like Jurassic Park, he sticks in a seemingly serious scientific lecture with illustrations and flights of philosophical musing, as if he really wants us to believe this. (Besson has a long history of films with unexpectedly contemplative themes, and he is also the director of The Professional, the Jean Reno action vehicle about a hired assassin, and The Story of Joan of Arc, about . . . you know. Lucy could easily be imagined as a combination of the two, so perhaps it’s not as unusual as it seems, for this director at least, but that makes it no less weird.)
For the rest of the film, Johansson, as the title character Lucy, races against the clock, first to get the drugs out of her system (too late) and then to acquire the rest of the drugs from the other couriers so she can go all the way and complete the strange transformation she can feel herself undergoing. At each step of the plot, an intertitle projects the amount of her brain the drugs have accelerated Lucy into using: 20 % . . . 30% . . . 40% . . . . At each step she gains more powers, but relinquishes more and more the common traits of humanity that link her to our species as it is.
Lucy’s adventures on the drug play out as a series of high-action shootouts and car chases. She casually kills a bunch of thugs who are holding her prisoner, then commandeers a taxicab (getting a driver to acknowledge he speaks English by shooting another driver in the leg because he does not). She drives to a hospital, bursts into the OR, and demands the surgeon remove the drug package from her abdomen. When the surgeon protests that he is operating on another patient, she coolly shoots that patient in the head and drags her body off the table. She informs the shocked surgical team that the patient wouldn’t have survived anyway, because her tumor had invaded her brain – something Lucy knows with her new-found sensory powers and scientific knowledge. The surprisingly calm surgeon then simply shifts over to operating on Lucy, takes the drugs out, and informs her that the new synthetic, “CPH4,” is a fetal growth hormone that will do unimaginable things to her as an adult (more scientific gibberish).
One thing it does is enable her to telepathically control communications networks: she mind-dials a French cop and tips him off to the incoming drug couriers, then lights up all the electronics in Morgan Freeman’s hotel room and appears on his big-screen TV like the head of the Wizard of Oz to tell him that her mind is expanding and she’s coming to see him to talk it over. (There’s a Charly-like quality to this, as this former college slacker becomes, in less than 24 hours, the smartest human on the planet and condescendingly informs the neuroscientist that he’s “basically on the right track”.) She also acknowledges that the drug gives her only another 24 hours to live. During that time, she joins the French cop to recover the drug packets from the couriers, and steals them by simply knocking all the cops unconscious with her mind. She abducts him and his police car and successfully navigates a thrilling wrong-way street chase through heavy traffic, after calmly noting that she has never before driven a car. This takes at least 5 minutes and racks up a carnage of destroyed cars that must be close to the record. (Notice also that she has quickly gone from being unable to drive or speak any language other than English to driving like an F1 champ and reading minds in French and Chinese.) When the druglord’s thugs attack to steal the drugs back, she immobilizes them by levitating their bodies up to the ceiling with her mind – after another furious, exciting, and lengthy shootout sequence between the thugs and the cops. Having acquired all the drugs, she meets Freeman and some other scientists at a lab and proceeds to explain to them that if they will merely inject the entire 4 kilos of drug into her body, she will have access to all knowledge in the universe and she will build them a special computer so they can download it. They obligingly do this.
During this extended sequence of ever more spectacular and unlikely action and combat stunts, Lucy slowly comes to terms with her own changes. In the very first scene, when she is pressed into service as a drug mule, she is a scatter-brained college kid, sobbing and terrified. After the drugs enter her system, within minutes she becomes calculating, preternaturally skillful, murderous, and cold-blooded, shooting five men to death without warning and then maiming the cab driver and executing the operating-room patient. As her mental abilities increase, and the brain-percentage readout climbs ever higher, she becomes less and less who she was before, and indeed less and less attached to human existence. She quickly accepts that she has only a day or two to live. She calls her mother to tell her she loves her, but says nothing about the danger she’s in or that she is going to die (her mother tells her, with unintentional irony, not to do drugs). She has a brief encounter with her own party-girl roommate, telepathically diagnoses the woman’s hidden illness, and blankly gives her the advice to clean up her life and “eat healthy,” then walks out to face her own transformation without another word. She infiltrates the druglord’s hideaway, kills his guards, and slams two knives through his hands into the arms of a chair so he’ll hold still while she reads his mind to get the location information on the other drug mules; then she walks out, leaving him crucified in the chair and screaming (but conveniently alive so he can make an appearance in the climactic shootout scene). When she finally contacts Freeman, her impending death seems to mean little to her, and she accepts as a matter of course that she will spend her last day on Earth acquiring information for the advancement of the human race (and not, say, seeking pleasure or wreaking vengeance on those who doomed her with their evil drug – making Lucy simultaneously more high-minded and yet more action-packed than the similarly-premised but gleefully lower-brow Crank).
Finally, having taken over 8 pounds of insanely dangerous synthetic hormone into her bloodstream, Lucy reaches the 100% mark. Using her telepathic control of all matter, she sucks in the computers and furniture of the scientists’ lab and incorporates the mass into her body, which transforms into a spreading network of glistening black strands, with only her face remaining. The druglord and his surviving henchmen attack the lab at this juncture, and engage the cops in a vicious shootout worthy of John Woo, involving machine guns, a rocket launcher, and suicide attacks with guns blazing. All on both sides are killed except for the lead French cop Lucy has been dragging around, and the chief druglord who started all this mess. The druglord bursts into the lab just as Lucy finishes her transformation, and empties his gun into the back of her head – but her body has disappeared by the time the bullets reach her. The cop shoots him in the back, and he and the scientists then stare dumbfounded at the druglord’s bleeding corpse and the towering black spire that has replaced Lucy’s body.
Just as Lucy undergoes her ultimate transformation, she transcends time and space. She has previously explained to the scientists that there is no reality – just a string of events in time. (They nod in awed silence, as if this is (a) original, and (b) not gibberish.) Now she races back through time, and also, somehow, gets transported from Paris to Times Square, where she watches the buildings get older and smaller, then replaced by forests, Native Americans, and eventually simple hominids (ignoring the fact that no pre-Homo species reached North America). Morgan Freeman has previously alluded to “Lucy,” the famous Australopithecus afarensis specimen. Now Paris Lucy meets African “Lucy” in prehistoric Manhattan and they strike a fingers-touching pose out of the Michelangelo fresco in the Sistine Chapel (implying that Lucy has created a causality loop by triggering the evolution of A. afarensis, similarly to the opening sequence of 2001?). Finally Lucy’s consciousness returns to the lab, where she has become embodied into the large black spire that is her computerized intelligence and knowledge base. The black tower extrudes a long branch with a rectangular object at its tip. Freeman hesitantly approaches, reaches out, and takes it. It proves to be . . . a humorously large flash drive, presumably containing all knowledge of time and space in an easily downloadable form. The black tower collapses into dust, and she’s gone.
The movie ends with the French cop – who has fallen in love with Lucy after she kidnapped him, stole and ingested drug evidence, got all his colleagues killed, and turned into the StarChild, all in a matter of hours – sadly asking “where is she?”. An electronic pad beeps with an incoming message and we see on its display: “I AM EVERYWHERE”. The last line is Scarlett Johansson’s disembodied voice telling us, as at the beginning, that we inherited life one billion years [sic, again] ago, and “Now you know what to do with it.”
So . . .
This thing’s a crazed mess.
The most engaging thing about science fiction, and the reason I think of it as a serious and important art form, is that it edits reality to force us to confront the implications of our lives or technology that otherwise go overlooked. Freed from physical constraints, it creates laboratories of the mind in the same way as Shakespeare, Dickens, or Jane Austen, but with greater control over the experimental conditions. As with science itself, manipulating parameters eliminates confounding elements and clarifies results, which can then be applied to illuminate conditions outside the laboratory.
When apes and humans clash in Planet of the Apes, we humans are made to feel the visceral humiliation of mistreatment, denial of personhood, and scientific abuse of captive specimens (which we are free to extrapolate to human research abuses, or human/animal relations, as we choose). The famous ending of the movie (as well as the plot of one of the sequels) interrogates nuclear terrorism and the threat of planetary destruction. There are unsubtle metaphors for racism, political reactionism, and other ills. The movie has an utterly impossible premise but touches unambiguously – though subtly – on real issues that are illuminated in new ways by the sci-fi setting. Snow Crash was a prescient imagination of online culture and techno-libertarian dystopia, again based upon a counter-factual scientific premise but incorporating enough plausible abstraction that the book not only offers a useful look at possible political alternatives, but, decades later, also seems predictive (in a way that earlier techno-futurism, such as the Foundation series, does not). Stephenson’s book forces us to ask whether we want to live in a world that is close enough to our own that the question matters, and uses its technological setting to give that world a gripping, even if fantastical, reality. The Star Trek franchise was (in)famous for its often heavy-handed social allegory, which got subtler and more sophisticated with each successive iteration of the series. Putting humans in new environments, peopled by new species, illustrated how universal some issues are, and imagined solutions to them that could be read back into our own Earthly setting. Invasion of the Body Snatchers . . . The Thing . . . Frankenstein . . . I Am Legend (the novel, not the terrible movies) . . . Firefly . . . good science fiction always draws us to see ourselves in new ways, by tweaking the details of context and technological possibility to heighten particular conflicts that then can be explored with profit.
Lucy carries a pretentious and overtly didactic message that, in the end, is incomprehensible because its science is incomprehensible. Lucy doesn’t do itself the justice of taking its science-fiction premise seriously, treating the packets of experimental drug as a standard action-film MacGuffin that lets the title character chase around three continents doing mayhem and hobnobbing with australopithecines, in ways that are so casually unhinged that there’s nothing to be learned from them and no real goal to the constant crazed action. (Lucy suffers from the same problem as Superman or the more exalted X-Men: if you have unstoppable powers, you never face any real danger and no one can stand in your way. So there’s no real story arc other than “do amazing things over and over,” which, by the end of the film, is what Lucy does.)
The technological premises of sci-fi films are, by definition, unreal (it’s “fiction”), and often impossible. FTL travel, time travel, personality cloning, laser blasters, interstellar spaceships, and many other familiar trappings of sci-fi either flatly contradict physical reality or are unimaginable from our current understanding of it. The audience is required to suspend disbelief about some of the enabling context in order to accept the story on its own terms, and this is within the bounds of fictional license. The same is true in every genre of fiction. But it insults the audience when that willingness to accept some stretching of the truth is toyed with, as when Mr. Spock constantly developed new abilities whenever he needed them to get out of a jam; the writers were not grappling with the bounds of the world they themselves had created, and so there was no reason for the audience to accept those limitations as motivations for the characters.
Lucy seemingly doesn’t care about setting up a plausible internal universe, regardless of how much gullibility the audience offers up. It begins with a premise that is not just false (“fiction”), but a classic example of dumb anti-scientific thinking. Grounding a sci-fi movie on the 10% myth is not far away from making a creationist sci-fi movie: it entices an audience of science enthusiasts by, basically, calling them idiots. (I admit that the distinction is hard to justify, but I still think there is a difference between this movie and a movie premised on FTL spaceships or genetically engineered dinosaurs. The difference has to do with the difference between extrapolating from valid scientific concepts to a point that is admittedly unreal, and starting from a point of scientific illiteracy to go to something that is real but completely screwed up. We already use 100% of our brains, and that doesn’t allow time travel; Lucy thus extrapolates science from fiction into reality and gets it wrong, which has got to be some kind of all-time record for futuristic failure in science fiction.)
It’s possible that Lucy could have worked as just a straightforward fantasy movie: instead of ingesting fetal growth hormones, she could have gone to Hogwarts and developed her powers of matter manipulation and reality distortion, and it would have been fine. But Lucy tries so hard to insist to us that this is real science, really, with its lectures and slides and biochemical animations and digital readouts and lab equipment and computers, that we have to just laugh when the science is so badly premised and then goes on to treat even its own premise with contempt. Even accepting the “10%” nonsense, there is nothing about becoming smarter that allows you to psychically control electronic communications, instantaneously comprehend languages you don’t speak, or levitate people. There is nothing about using your brain that allows you to travel through time and magically evolve your own ancestor. The movie can’t even get geography right: she disappears from Paris, reappears in New York, and then travels backward in time to meet African hominids in prehistoric Times Square. Jesus, why not just to go to Africa and eliminate at least one pointless glaring error?
How does she become a sparkling black computer? Who knows? The movie simply does things, and whatever it feels like doing it blindly attributes to Lucy’s new-found brain powers as if that were an explanation. It doesn’t care that not only is the explanation farcical but the things she does don’t even involve brain power. When “the Hulk” bulks up with huge muscles, he then performs feats of strength. OK, that makes sense even though it’s impossible. When Spiderman gets bitten by a radioactive spider, he develops spider skills like wall-crawling and web-slinging. OK – that makes no freakin’ sense, but at least it’s vaguely consistent. Lucy takes a fetal hormone, which develops her brain power, which then allows her to levitate matter and travel through time. Not one step in this sequence relates to any other; it’s not simply scientific gibberish but a completely non-sequitur string of unrelated gibberish. When your painfully pretentious science movie makes less sense than The Beast of Yucca Flats, you obviously don’t really care about the science.
So what does this movie care about? It’s hard to say. Whatever it is, Luc Besson apparently didn’t believe in it enough to feel that it could carry the entire move by itself – he had to sandwich it in between a kidnapping, violent drug ODs, threatened rape, martial arts, gory surgeries, at least three shootings in cold blood, crucifixion-by-knife, several lengthy cops-vs.-robbers shootouts, a rocket launcher, an over-the-top car chase, plus all the super-power mumbo-jumbo and an almost invisibly tepid love interest. Given the basic premise, the theme appears to be that . . . humans have untapped potential. This is hardly enlightening, and, given what that potential turns out to be (time travel?), it’s not clear how we’re supposed to access or use it. There is also the intriguing, and surprisingly subtle, theme that has Lucy drifting away from emotions and relationships as her brain powers increase. Is that what happens when you get smarter – you stop caring about your mother and shoot people in cold blood? All this makes the final moral – “Now you know what to do with it” – incomprehensible. What are we supposed to do with our lives – take fictional drugs, abandon all human connection, and morph into time-traveling magicians? Yeah, that’s news we can use.
So, for all its bombast, and even overlooking the foundational stupidity, Lucy ends up as a big pile of nothing. It has a message that can’t mean anything, enabled by technology that is not merely fictional but violates quite nearly every basic premise of physics. Good science fiction helps us see themes and possibilities that are extrapolated from our reality, to encourage us to reflect on them and then read that reflection back into our own lives. I simply can’t find anything in Lucy that I can attach to, let alone learn from. That means that, in the end, the film uses much less than 10% of its own brain – overwhelming us with nonsense from which there is so little to pick out that it ought to be declared brain-dead.
Epilogue: I liked the movie. That seems impossible from all the above, but, hell, it had car chases, shootouts, pseudo-science, and Scarlett Johansson doing her special thing. It was fun to watch, but dumb, dumb, dumb. I don’t mind that at all. (It’s exactly what I expect from Guardians of the Galaxy, which opened just a week later and is getting lavishly positive reviews and box-office at the same time Lucy is getting trashed. From what I understand, they are in many ways the same movie. The only difference is the apparent degree of self-delusion of their respective directors.) The only problem is that good sci-fi, as I’ve said repeatedly above, aspires to be something intelligent and thought-provoking. Lucy clearly aspires to such, and it is there that it fails horribly. But feel free to go watch it for the shootouts and Scarlett Johansson – always a worthy investment of time.
* This makes it at least the second movie** taking the “low percentage” myth as a basic premise. The other that I can think of was Defending Your Life, a charmingly depressed romantic comedy set in the afterlife, starring Albert Brooks*** and Meryl Streep, which manages both to reduce the purported average to less than 5% and work in a brain/penis size joke.
** I now discover that, apparently, Inception incorporates the same premise. I haven’t seen it.
*** Real name: Albert Einstein. Yes, seriously.
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