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Review by Joseph Gross
As a student of the life sciences, I’m somewhat baffled by the persistence of the “ten percent” misconception. The idea that humans only use ten percent of their brains seems entirely implausible not only under the basic principles of evolution, but empirical study of the brain has thoroughly debunked it. Yet the misconception persists, and its appeal is understandable. Who doesn’t feel like they could have done certain things better if only they’d applied themselves? The theory provides a scientific-sounding explanation for those nagging feelings of wasted potential, and it perpetuates itself through motivational speakers and films like Limitless and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, telling audiences that they could attain their innate greatness using pharmaceuticals or veganism or sheer force of will. And so we come to Luc Besson’s Lucy, the most recent such film, which goes so far as to periodically display title cards saying what percentage of her brain capacity the title character (Scarlett Johansson) is using. Indeed, in a summer that’s already seen new X-Men and Transformers releases, Lucy may prove to be the most audaciously unscientific film of the season.
If any actor in Hollywood can make pseudoscience sound credible, it’s Morgan Freeman, who’s honed the skill hosting some of the more epistemologically dubious episodes of Through the Wormhole. Here, Freeman lends his exceptional gravitas to Professor Norman, apparently one of the world’s foremost neuroscientists, who spends the first act delivering a lecture that exposits the basic biology of Besson’s universe. This is intercut with the story of Lucy, an American woman in Taipei trapped into delivering a mysterious briefcase to a Korean mob boss named Mr. Jang (Min-sik Choi). Jang and his men brace for impact when she opens it, but relax when it is revealed to contain four bags of blue powder, identified as CPH4, that they plan to sell as a designer drug in Europe, smuggling them from Asia in abdominal cavities. The act is manically paced, and the plot takes several shocking turns that raise questions that are never answered. (Why was Lucy’s boyfriend murdered? Why was the cartel afraid the briefcase might be rigged to explode? And how did they get hold of a hugely significant drug before any of the scientists seen later in the film?) These concerns dissipate when Lucy is kicked in the stomach, and her bag bursts, exposing her to CPH4 and allowing her to access more than ten percent of her brain. She needs the other three bags to reach one hundred percent, so she begins to compete with the cartel to retrieve them as her psychic powers develop. These abilities sometimes give her complete control over her body, allowing her to modify her appearance at will. Other times, however, her body rejects her brain, as seen when she begins to disintegrate on an airplane. All of this teases at the mind-body problem, but the film’s depiction of the brain seems inconsistent with both dualistic and monistic approaches. The only effect of CPH4 that does seem consistent is an increased apathy towards human suffering.
According to Dr. Norman, while humans use ten percent of their brains, most animals only use three to five. By the film’s logic, as Lucy grows nearer to one hundred percent usage, other humans become more like animals than peers. This is reflected by the film’s editing, which makes frequent use of thematic cuts to wildlife footage prior to Lucy’s transformation and stops them as she becomes something entirely unlike an animal. It’s also seen in Lucy’s behavior, as she kills and injures innocent people without concern and describes the gruesome deaths she’s witnessed in cold, clinical detail. Prior to her accidental dosage, Johansson gave the most believable performance in the film, reacting with credible shock to being forced into a drug deal and seeing it go awry, while other characters later treat psychic powers as a mild curiosity. It makes her transition to heartless roboticism all the more disappointing. The parts of her brain that process emotions, empathy and pain appear to have been entirely overwhelmed by the parts that enable telekinesis and generate metaphysical nonsense.
By the time she’s reached one hundred percent, Lucy is effectively a god, projecting her consciousness throughout the entirety of time in space and storing her knowledge in a computer she gives to Dr. Norman. At this point the film makes an abrupt transition from a silly but perfectly entertaining sci-fi thriller to ten minutes of psychedelia, as Lucy experiences the entirety of cosmic history while transforming her body into a mass of black tendrils that in turn transforms into a supercomputer contained on a single flash drive. Her chemically-aided achievement of theosis is confirmed by a very deliberate parody of Michelangelo's The Creation of Adam she performs with a primitive hominid some three million years ago. But Lucy the god doesn’t give Lucy the australopithecus her image and her likeness, which is distant and alien and completely unrelatable for any sort of creature, including humans. She simply acknowledges her ancestor as a reminder of what she used to be and withdraws her finger, forsaking imminence for transcendence.
She moves on to see the dinosaurs and the formation of the earth and the creation of the universe. These sequences have been likened to similar ones in Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life. These comparisons are superficially apt, but Besson, in addition to lacking Malick’s sense of deliberate pacing and distaste for CGI, has an entirely different theology. While Tree of Life shows the cosmos being born of divine grace and shaped over time, Lucy depicts creation in reverse, peeling back the order of things to reveal an innate chaotic power previously unrealized, paralleling Lucy’s experience in abandoning humanity for godhood. The visual effects are commendable displays of digital artistry, but the worldview they point to is horribly bleak. Probably. That’s the best interpretation I can make of the ambiguous climax, but given how inconsistent the most straightforward parts of the film are, it may be best left uninterpreted. It’s a fine spectacle and a decent Kubrick homage, but an unsatisfying ending to this movie.