Lucy [2014]

This film sounded like a re-tread of a very worn Science Fiction concept: the advancement of the Intelligence Quotient at the expense of a kind of Emotional Quotient. Super-powers queues up super-inhumanity. The first time I encountered this concept was watching a c. 1950s film in which the protagonist was artificially evolved toward the end-point of humanity’s natural progression. I think Farscape also did an episode along these lines. I’ve enjoyed a lot of Luc Besson’s other work, but it’s never struck me as cerebral enough to explore anything like this kind of concept. I was persuaded, however, after reading Anna’s very interesting review, that I should give it a chance. I was persuaded that there was another layer of meaning below the surface content sold to me by the trailer and by the general run of reviews which described it as “bonkers” but “fun”. Plus, it was the only film on a Tuesday night available with a sufficiently early finish time to not interfere with my Wednesday morning.

The general theme in this subgenre of Science Fiction is that intellectual power is essentially bad. It is always dangerous to the people surrounding the newly-elevated personage. Crucially, they always lose their empathetic connection with those who surround them. You end up with scenes such as the climax of “Where No Man Has Gone Before”, where Gary Mitchell tries to crush his former friend James R Kirk as a kind of punishment for his intellectual inferiority. The overt message of such scenes is shot through with the old idea that power corrupts, but that the true hero who rejects power and accepts limitations can triumph due to the ultimately self-destructive nature of corruption. The idea is that the meek will inherit the Earth, which is all very appealing if you’re wearing a red shirt, but is not exactly reflective of reality.

More importantly, it reverses the historical trend of human evolution: you don’t get Shakespeare without first having Aeschylus. We fetishise the past and construct Golden Ages all the time, while predicting gloomier and gloomier future visions. George Orwell imagined 1984 as the end-point of technology, but there’s nothing technologically present in 1984 that’s missing from Star Trek. The difference is in the use to which the technology is put. The Farscape episode with de-evolved, regular and hyper-evolved Crichton makes this clear. Modern Crichton is the perfect balance of heart and intellect… the future is a dangerous place for his humanity.

Anna Klein writes that “a human cannot comprehend the vastness of space and time without losing what makes them human.” I would interpret crucial scenes in the film a little differently. Lucy begins the film as a shallow, not to say vacuous party-girl, hooking up with random shady characters for meaningless sex as an adjunct to a party life. One of the first things she does as a newly empowered person is to reach out to her mother to express a deep emotional connection that had been obscured, not to say destroyed, by her lifestyle. Lucy does jettison her party-going friend, with a condescending instruction for turning her life around, but I don’t interpret this as a loss of empathy per se, as a necessary action for progressing Lucy’s agenda. She believes she has only a few hours to live, after all, and needs to meet Morgan Freeman to tell him about her experiences. Nor can I quite read her final apotheosis in the terms that Anna does, because not only does she leave behind a USB key with knowledge for her mortal compatriots, but she communicates with them from beyond. The only reason is to sustain an empathetic connection: she needs the handsome French police captain “to remind her”. If anything, I think Besson’s interest is in retaining the knowledge that Lucy wins. The final line of the film is an exhortation for others to follow in her footsteps.

What we have in Lucy is quite different from the fear of evolution that we’ve seen in other science fiction. We have a central character who embraces her fate, and who rather than becoming destructive, attempts to pass her knowledge on and to retain human emotional contact. Rather than being a Lovecraftian tale tinged with fear of ultimate knowledge, I read Lucy as excited by the idea of exceeding current apparent human limitations. YMMV.

I think of all the close relations, there is one key text to read alongside Lucy: The Lawnmower Man [1992]. It received a critical kicking at the time, and in our modern it’s aged terribly – it’s cringe-worthy and the FX is laugh-out-loud bad. It plots almost the identical story trajectory, but where Lucy’s intelligence is turned wholly towards a positive vision of humanity empowered, Jobe quickly goes off the rails and exacts terrible penalties on those who were not on his side before his apotheosis. Alongside one another they illustrate the difference between optimism and pessimism.

Luc Besson deserves credit for sustaining and articulating a vision of post-humanity that’s basically upbeat, in contrast to virtually everyone else who’s ever thought about it. But, that aside, I found Lucy a pretty dire watch. It was just too stupid. In one interview with Luc Besson I heard him discuss how the 10% nominal “brain capacity” was complete rubbish, and he explained pretty cogently that we use 15% of our neurons at any one time, but not the same 15% over time, and other relevant facts. He described this as too complex, and said his metaphorical interests were served by the elision of all that detail. Well that’s all well and good but I think that for a film about ideas to work and be compelling it can’t be afraid of those ideas. You couldn’t have a slasher film where the central killer doesn’t actually quite kill anyone because that’s be a bit dark after all. For me the film was stillborn at best as a result.

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