I don’t usually do film reviews, because for A) I know nothing whatsoever about filmmaking and can offer nothing more technical than “I liked this” or “I didn’t like this”; and for B), I run the risk of indulging the aforementioned horrible anti-creative, pseudo-journalistic writing style I have, and that I hate so very much.
So let’s not call this a review. Let’s just think of this as me telling you that I went with some friends to see Lucy last night. Lucy is a movie by Luc Besson – the director of The Fifth Element, Léon, and every other film ever – and starring Scarlett Johanssonas a woman who manages to unlock the hitherto-unused portions of the human brain to achieve superpowers.
Below the cut, I’m going to write freely, so there will probably be spoilers.
It annoyed me because the film is based on a ludicrously discredited and long-debunked idea: that humans “only use 10% of their brain capacity”. This has led to some wild ideas about what humans could do, if only we could access that unused 90%. And this film is one of those wild ideas.
But there’s never been any serious suggestion that there’s an unused 90% of any human brain. The misunderstanding that everybody’s run with is based on the observation that different parts of the brain light up at different times, because different parts of the brain control different things. If we’re dancing, our brains will be lit up in different places than if we’re painting or doing maths puzzles. Some parts are lit pretty much all the time we’re alive, such as those parts that control things like breath and heartbeat; and when we dream we use different parts still, although there may be significant overlap.
So the point is that the human brain only uses a limited percentage of its capacity at any one time. And that might be ten percent, or more, or less. But before you jump on that, and say, “Well, if we could get it to use more at once…” ask yourself what the point would be. If you’re sitting concentrating on a tricky maths puzzle, how would it benefit you to force synapses to fire in the parts of the brain you use while dancing, or lifting heavy objects, or driving?
Still, for the sake of this film, we’re expected to accept this discredited idea; and, for the sake of the film, it’s actually quite easy to do so, partially because the film itself is entrancing, but mostly because the said idea is delivered by Morgan Freeman – and quite frankly, if that man told me that the Daily Mail was a valuable, trustworthy and informative news source, I’d be almost tempted to believe it. Almost.
We’re introduced to Lucy, a slightly dizzy American student staying in Taiwan, we assume for educational purposes (she mentions having to go and study). She’s having an argument with her partner, a ‘The Hangover‘-esque bum who’s trying to persuade her to go into a fancy hotel and deliver a case to reception. He won’t tell her what’s in it; but he says he can’t go himself because he’s fallen out with the guy he’s delivering to. Lucy doesn’t want to go, but is eventually tricked into it and has no choice. She’s quickly kidnapped by drug dealers because the moment Richard refused to say what was in the case it could only have been drug-related, obviously. (Universal-justice spoiler: Richard doesn’t come out of it too well, even so.)
Lucy is intimidated into serving as a drug mule for a new substance the dealers have synthesised: a large bag is implanted in her belly, and she’s told to fly home. Before she can get there, she upsets one of the gang flunkies by refusing to let him have sex with her, and he beats her, rupturing the bag and flooding her body with the chemical, causing her to… levitate? Apparently. While she thrashes about on the ceiling for a bit, we cut to Morgan Freeman as a professor giving a lecture on the 10%-of-the-brain idea, which he explains he’s been working on for most of his academic life, the poor soul. But, remember, in this movie, it’s a real thing, so, you know, he hasn’t entirely wasted his time.
Once the drug takes full effect, Lucy – with her now massively-expanded brain ability – quickly cottons on to what’s happening. She escapes from the gang and…
Actually, you know what? The plot isn’t really all that important. No, I mean that kindly: there is a little bit of chasing around as Lucy uses European police forces to round up the other drug mules in order to retrieve their bags of the drug, and then she goes to see Professor Freeman and his colleagues. And this is where the film really is: Lucy, with her vastly increased understanding of, well, everything[*], converses with the scientists and the film becomes beautifully philosophical. Yes, granted, it’s superficial movie-philosophy, but I love this sort of thing. I’m a great believer in the idea that wisdom can be found in unexpected places. The science of the movie might be flat-out wrong, but while snide positivists insist that science has now replaced philosophy, I believe there is a place where reality (or what we’ve trained ourselves to think of as reality) will prove so utterly bizarre that philosophy will be the only practical way of approaching it.
The plot of Lucy is really secondary, as is the premise: the unlocking of the brain by means of this new drug. The mechanism for the unlocking could have been anything, and the true heart of the film would have been just as effective. Though the whole film held me pretty well gripped, what really sold me on it were the sections dealing with the Big Questions: the purpose of reproductive life, and the nature of existence and consciousness, and so on. For a film to take on ideas like these can be disastrous: Lucy could so easily have ended up as a pretentious, wannabe-highbrow film with no more appeal than my writing. But because it doesn’t try too hard to be serious, it manages to put across some fairly weighty ideas without making the movie unduly gruelling.
Throw in a bunch of very clear, very deliberate references to such movies as 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Matrix, and it’s obvious that the film’s main aim is to have fun with some wild philosophical ideas. It’s one of those movies, I think, that leave you with an initial sense of ‘WTF?’ – but which let you, if you feel so inclined, play with them in your mind for hours, days, weeks afterwards, and see what ideas crop up.
Just try not to come away with the idea that the moral of the story was, “If you take enough experimental synthetic drugs, you’ll turn into God.” I’m sure there are plenty of recreational drug enthusiasts out there who’ll try that one on, but I don’t imagine it’s what the filmmakers were aiming for.
[*] – There’s an unfortunate tendency to equate intelligence with knowledge. If you’re intelligent, it must mean you know more than someone else. Red Dwarf did this particularly glaringly in the episode ‘White Hole’, when Holly, her IQ advanced to 12,000, insists that she knows everything, and repeatedly demands that she be asked questions about the meaning of life. Intelligence certainly would make you able to work things out more effectively, but it doesn’t necessarily teach you knowledge. Lucy actually deals with this quite well, since the film establishes that she can absorb information phenomenally quickly (reading several thousand pages of Professor Freeman’s work in barely any time at all), and otherwise the answers she gives are things she could have worked out from what she already knew and observed.