Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Muddled Message of Lucy

Lucy is such a terrible film that in the end even the amazing Scarlett Johansson cannot save it. It is sloppily made, and here I do not mean its adoption of the old popular-culture truism that we only use 10 percent of our brains. (The fuss created by that premise is quite wonderful.) There is just no eye for detail, however important. The blue crystals that make Lucy a superwoman are repeatedly referred to as a powder.
Not powder. (Ask Walter White.)
Morgan Freeman speaks of the “mens” he has brought together to study her. Lucy is diverted from her journey as a drug mule by persons unknown and for reasons never even remotely explained. And I defy anybody to make the slightest sense of the lecture Freeman is giving that introduces us to his brain scientist character.

But it does have An Idea at its heart. This idea is the new popular-culture truism that evolution is a matter of acquiring, sharing, and transmitting information — less “pay it forward” than pass it on. So the great gift that Lucy gives to Freeman and his fellow geeks at the end of the movie is a starry USB drive that, we are presumably to believe, contains all the information about life, the universe, and everything that she has gained in the course of her coming to use her brain to its fullest time-traveling extent. (Doesn’t she know that a Firewire connection would have allowed faster download speeds?)

Why this gift is necessary is a little mysterious since it looks like we now know how anybody could gain the same powers Lucy has; the dialogue does not give us any reason to believe that her brain-developing reaction to the massive doses of the blue crystals she receives, administered in three different ways, is unique to her. That might just be more sloppy writing. But then again perhaps it is just as well that others not try to emulate Lucy, because it turns out the evolutionary imperative to develop and pass on information is, as one might expect from a bald evolutionary imperative, exceedingly dehumanizing. Of course given that most of her interactions in the film are with people who are trying to kill her, this should not be too much of a surprise. But although she sometimes restrains rather than kills, she shows little regard for any human life that stands in her way, a point made explicitly as she is driving like a maniac through the streets of Paris. Yes, she uses her powers to tell a friend to shape up and make better choices (as if somehow knowing the friend’s kidney and liver functions are off would be necessary for such an admonition). And early on she takes a quiet moment while she is being operated on to call her parents to say how much she loves them. (Pain, as the virulently utopian H.G. Wells understood, is not something supermen have to worry about.) That loving sentiment is couched in a lengthy conversation about how she is changing, a conversation that, without having the context explained, would surely convince any parent that the child was near death or utterly stoned — both of which are in a sense true for Lucy. But it looks like using more of her brain does not increase her emotional intelligence. (Lucy Transcendent can send texts; perhaps she will explain everything to her mother that way.)

Warming up for piano practice.
So what filmmaker Luc Besson has done, it seems, is to create a movie suggesting that a character not terribly unlike his killer heroine in La Femme Nikita represents the evolutionary progress of the human brain (as Freeman’s character would see it), that the goal of Life is to produce more effective killing machines. Given what we see of her at the start of the film, I think we can suspect that Lucy has always put Lucy first. A hyperintelligent Lucy is just better at it. The fact that early on the film intercuts scenes of cheetahs hunting with Lucy’s being drawn in and captured by the bad guys would seem to mean that all this acquiring and transmitting of information is not really going to change anything fundamental. Nature red in tooth and claw, and all that. I’m not sure Besson knows this is his message. The last moments of the film, which suggest that the now omnipresent Lucy, who has transcended her humanity and her selfishness, wants us to go forth and share the knowledge she has bequeathed us, have atmospherics that suggest a frankly sappier progressive message along the lines of information wants to be free.

I wish I could believe that by making Lucy so robotic as her mental abilities increase Besson was suggesting that, whatever evolution might “want,” the mere accumulation of knowledge is not the point of a good human life. I’d like to think that even if he is correct about the underlying reality, he wants us to see how we should cherish the aspects of our humanity that manage, however imperfectly, to allow us to obscure or overcome it. But I think someone making that kind of movie would not have called crystals powder.


  1. Obviously you lost the core of the "lesson," may be too distracted by the female character.... the heart of the evolutionary tale is the ability to use ALL of our God-given capacity. I grant you that we should evolve not only our mental faculties, but also heart and "spirit" (assuming you believe in God and that mankind has a soul. Of course is not going to be a massive dose of drugs that will bring us to the next steps in evolution, it will require TIME and a lot of WILL POWER, as well as some well chosen environmental support systems.

  2. I could indeed be guilty of having been distracted by Scarlett Johansson; it would not be the first time. And I might even agree with guidogeorge if the point is that the movie illustrates, by the relative absence of developments in Lucy's heart and spirit, how important it would be to make sure that any radical development of intellect were matched in these other realms. So Lucy becomes a cautionary tale. But I remain skeptical about this point because the film takes on its concluding redemptive tone even without such changes in her having been made clear, and because her transformation at the end is so "posthuman" as to cast doubt on the proposition that it represents any kind of development of "our" merely human capacities. I am thus less sanguine than guidogeorge about the triumph of our will.

  3. I finally watched Lucy tonight. (It was in the category of “laundry viewing” — TV or movies only worth seeing on a day when I’m stuck doing laundry anyway.) Your description, Charlie, is really very well put. There are a few moments of nice animation, the cinematography is competent, and the car non-chase is a fun ride, but the movie is unrelentingly stupid. The pseudoscience is stupid. The plot is stupid. As you say, the writing (“top mens”!) is stupid. It did have the virtue of being a short movie, though. Stupid and short is better than stupid and long.

    You rightly critique the one “idea” Besson was trying to get across. I’d like to note something else, by pointing out three other brief moments from the movie. First, as she is awakening to her powers, Lucy phones her mother, describes her changing feelings and memories (Lucy now remembers being born), and thanks her mom for the kisses given her through the years. This loving conversation is nearly the last relatably human thing Lucy does.

    Second, in a brief visit with her friend (roommate?) Caroline, whose computer she needs, Lucy magically detects that Caroline has an unknown health problem — bad kidneys — and warns Caroline, providing her a forged medical prescription. This is the last interaction Lucy has with anyone she knew from her time as an unenhanced human being. It is interesting to note that in her interaction with Caroline, Lucy is emotionally undemonstrative; she evinces no interest in the things Caroline says or asks. But Lucy cares enough to warn Caroline about her looming health problem. I get the sense that if Caroline were on the verge of a psychological or psychosocial problem, Lucy at this stage would not be able to detect it. But she can detect the problem with Caroline’s physical health. Lucy’s growing powers may give her more insight into and power over the material realm, but she is increasingly distant from the realm of the human mind.

    Lucy seems not to care about the many people harmed in the swath of destruction she leaves in her wake. This is troubling because, remember, she increasingly has not just understanding of matter but power over it. Why, at key moments, doesn’t she use her powers to heal the wounded people around her? Presumably because she doesn’t notice or care about them

    Except, maybe briefly, her ally, the French cop (narcotics officer? Interpol guy? immigration guy? it’s unclear). Which brings me to the third moment I want to mention: she briefly kisses him. It is an untender kiss, but she explains that she kissed him as a “reminder.” I wondered momentarily whether something else might happen — Morgan Freeman’s character had talked earlier about the procreative imperative, after all — but it seems the kiss was just a way for Lucy to remind herself that other human beings exist, and are worth caring about.

    But it ain’t much of a reminder, apparently. Indeed, when the cop is shot in the right shoulder, Lucy doesn’t notice; she is too busy communing with time, or unlocking the secrets of creation, or whatever. Had she cared even a tiny bit about the people endangered in the gunfight near her, she could have healed him. She was herself shot in her right shoulder earlier, so presumably she has some clue of the pain her erstwhile companion is in. But she doesn’t care. She is on her goofy quest to make her magic USB drive.

    All of which is a longwinded way of saying that Lucy does unintentionally stumble upon an insight, one that you, Charlie, have described eloquently on this blog and in your book, and that some of the crowd now worrying about superintelligent AI is beginning to care about: If we were to encounter a being that is very intelligent or very powerful, even if it is a being created by us or a being that was formerly one of us, there is no reason to think that its desires or interests will be understandable to us or aligned with ours. Such a being might, like Lucy, not care about how many of us are harmed in its pursuit of what it wants.


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