Over-Analyzing Lucy: Why This Movie is a Crime Against Science, Sense and Filmmaking

I watch a lot of dumb movies.

As regular readers already know.

I can tolerate a lot of stupidity in my movies. As long as they can keep my attention for 90+ minutes and leave me with a general understanding of what I just saw, I'm pretty much good. I can forgive a lot of things. I can forgive Apocalypto for its laughable misrepresentation of history. I can forgive Dracula Untold for its portrayal of one of Europe's most brutal rulers as a loving family man. I can forgive The Pirates of the Caribbean for its slow descent into a plot hole-riddled parody of itself. 

But some movies are just too stupid to forgive. 

Just reading this poster actually makes you dumber.

Lucy is a 90-minute exercise in sci-fi and disappointment that wins my pick for dumbest movie of 2014, if not of the entire 21st century thus far. For those of you who haven't seen it and don't give one flying fuck about spoilers, the movie is about a young woman who is kidnapped by drug lords and has a pouch of fetus-based drugs sewn into her abdomen. The pouch ruptures before she can get to her destination, and instead of Janis Joplin-ing her way out of this world, Lucy becomes the first human able to access more than 10% of her brain power, rapidly approaching 100%. Shenanigans ensue, and Morgan Freeman is present. That's really all you need to know.

This movie should be mandatory viewing in all film schools, if for no other reason than to teach future filmmakers why you shouldn't base a big-budget motion picture on a "fun fact" you read in a chain email your grandmother forwarded to you. Director Luc Besson was also the director of The Fifth Element, a sci-fi story about a genetically perfect orange-headed woman who wears nothing but gauze bandages and battles plastic-headed Gary Oldman while a confused, cross-dressing radio broadcaster shrieks nonsense into a microphone, and compared to Lucy, that film looks like a goddamn documentary. Think I'm being harsh? Consider that:

The entire premise is complete nonsense. 

We only use 10% of our brains! The movie poster says so! The trailers all say so! Morgan Freeman spends half the movie standing at a podium in front of a university lecture theatre in front of hundreds of impressionable students, saying that over and over!

You know who doesn't say that? Anyone with a fucking clue how the brain works. 

This is me, every time someone says that.

As I have previously mentioned on this blog, we are not all going through life using 10% of our brains while harboring untapped mysteries in the other 90%. That doesn't even make sense. If I told you I was going to expose your brain and plunge a knife into it, completely at random - a painless process, I might add, since there are no pain receptors in the brain - you'd probably be pretty upset with me. Why? If the 10% thing were true, it would mean that 90% of your brain was useless, fleshy padding that had absolutely no bearing on your day-to-day functioning. My odds of stabbing anything useful would only be 1/10. That's how ridiculous this pervasive little 'fun fact' is - if there were any truth to it, sustaining massive brain damage or having a stroke would be no big deal, since most of the damage would always be to that useless 'extra' brain you weren't using anyway.

Nice! Still got way more than 10% left. He won't even notice.

So why does playing a game of blindfolded brain surgery roulette freak you out so much? Most of you probably realize that the location of your new brain-stab wound would have a profound effect on which brand-new disability you walked away with. Consider this map of the brain:

"Yeah, go ahead and stab me in the cerebellum. I bet that thing doesn't do very much."

Look at that! Everything in your brain seems to have some sort of vital function; I don't see any large blank spaces labelled "Fuck if I know, the secrets of time and the universe are probably locked up in here". And for good reason - neurons that don't get used for things just die. There's no point to keeping them alive. Your brain doesn't want to let that happen to valuable chunks of itself, so even if a large portion of your brain suddenly finds itself with nothing to do (like, for instance, if you go blind and take away your visual cortex's reason for existing), that tissue doesn't just get left to rot. Another brain function will move in and snatch up all those neurons for itself. 

In fact, if you do go blind, your brain will decide that that looks like a lovely spot for your new Braille-reading ability to live.

The fact that the movie tries to gloss everything over with evolutionary explanations makes this even more ridiculous. Let's talk evolution. Your brain is the single biggest consumer of energy in your entire body - a full one-third of your metabolism is dedicated to keeping that sucker up and running. If you know anything about the process of evolution, you should know that it's not wasteful. Every feature we develop should somehow contribute to our survival and reproductive success; we don't just sprout random extra shit because it looks cool. So if the 10% thing were true, that would mean that our bodies - for whatever reason - decided to devote a shitload of time and energy to develop super-brains, and then arbitrarily locked us out of most of them, while still insisting that we dump tons of valuable calories into keeping our Hummer-brains alive. If the average person must eat 2,000 calories per day to maintain their body weight, that means that almost 600 of those calories go directly to powering the 90% of your brain that you can never, ever use, providing you with no benefit whatsoever.

One of these. Every day.

The movie tries to sidestep around this ridiculous bit of fake brain trivia by claiming that the average human only uses 10% of their brain at once. They apparently concede that maybe most of the physical brain isn't useless mystery meat, but if we could only fire more of our neurons at once, we'd unlock the secrets of the universe. Well, great news, sci-fi fans! There are already people among us right now who can fire a lot of their neurons at once! You know what we call it when someone fires most of their neurons at the same time?

A fucking Grand Mal seizure. 

This is not a good time. 

Your brain actually relies on differences in neural firing rates to send and receive messages. In order to accomplish tasks like reading text, recognizing faces and beating your fucking heart, your brain looks at which neurons aren't firing, as well as which ones are. So if you obliterate those messages by blindly firing 100% of your neurons all the time, the best possible outcome is for you to seize wildly on your kitchen floor while all of your muscles and bodily processes go completely out of control. The worst possible outcome is catastrophic organ failure, followed by death. Turns out that heart rate thing is pretty important.

Her powers don't make any biological sense. 

As Lucy's ability to use her own brain increases, she starts to gain access to all the neat superhuman abilities her brain has allegedly been hiding from her the whole time. And I'll admit it - if you could somehow gain 90% more brain power, you absolutely would start to notice that you're capable of a few more things than you used to be. Notably, things that are actually brain-related: processing speed, memory, and learning time, to name a few. And there is a little bit of this in the movie. But mostly, what we see Lucy obtaining are X-men-style mutant powers that make absolutely no sense.

The first thing Lucy gains after hitting 20% brain capacity is the ability to control her own physical functions. Ignoring the part of the movie wherein Morgan Freeman mentions that dolphins have 20% control of their brains, and are therefore apparently manually monitoring their own heart rates and metabolisms, this is presented as if it's a good thing. Who wouldn't want to take over manual control of their circulatory, digestive, lymph, immune and endocrine systems?

How about fucking nobody?

Trust me, we've got a good thing going right now.

Do you have any idea how many biological functions are required to keep you alive at any given moment? Right now, as you're sitting there, scrolling through this article, your body is taking in carbon dioxide, oxygen and nitrogen from the atmosphere and circulating them through your entire body to make sure you don't die. It's feeding nutrients to the billions and billions of hungry cells that make up every part of your body. It's repairing tissue damages from that time you thought you'd try Parkour last week, and your immune system is fending off dangerous pathogens you picked up from rolling around on a truck stop floor. Your digestive system is producing the mucus layer it needs to protect you from digesting yourself from the inside out. Unknown bacteria in your gut are performing mysterious vital functions that modern medicine doesn't even know about yet. Your brain doesn't keep all these things hidden from you because it doesn't trust you - it takes care of them for you so you don't have to worry about them. It's doing you a favour. We cannot multitask. Even people with IQs in the upper fringes cannot multitask - they are simply more effective at switching back and forth between single tasks. The first time Lucy got stressed, or startled, or decided to check out a stranger's cute butt on the subway, she'd be apt to mix up her kidney and pancreas functions and lapse into full-fledged ketoacidosis in the middle of learning Chinese overnight.

Even if we buy the notion that Lucy's new superbrain can juggle thousands of bodily functions without accidentally making her shit out her own spleen, there's one more problem:

Remember this?

Lucy's new brain can do a lot of things, but she can't make chemical reactions move faster. And that's a problem. See, most of your body's basic functions don't go through the brain at all. Why would they? Your brain is a long way off, and the specialized cells of your various body systems know what they're doing. They don't need your brain to babysit them; they've got that shit down. Your cells perform a lot of their function through direct communication via chemical messages; they secrete certain chemicals, surrounding cells pick up on those chemicals, and you continue to be alive. Going through your brain is actually the slow route; those chemical signals have to move all the way to your spine, up your spinal column, into your brain for processing, then back down the spine and out to the affected cells. It takes a while. This is why you have reflexes - the signal bounces to your spine and back and skips the brain entirely, because if you had to wait for the signal to travel all the way up to your brain, your hand would have cooked itself onto the hot stove by the time you got the message to snatch it away. No matter how fast Lucy's brain can process information, she can't get around the fact that she has a spine that takes time to relay signals.

You need this.

As Lucy's brain power ticks closer and closer to 100%, her newfound powers become more and more ridiculous. At some point, she gains the ability to change her eye colour at will:

Oh, yes, that's subtle. No one will suspect there's anything wrong with you.

Once again, there's no way for your brain to pull this off. Your eye colour is determined by how much pigment your body puts into the muscle that contracts your pupil. It's genetically determined. Your eye colour was set the moment your parents humped you into existence. No amount of brain supplements will give you the ability to switch it at will like some kind of fanfiction nightmare. Likewise, the ability to change hair colour and texture at will is equally ridiculous.

No amount of vitamins and brain teasers will let you do this. 

Even if your brain could speed up the rate at which you push strands of dead keratin out of your head - which it can't - that's a great way to burn out your hair follicles. Your follicles are delicate things, and they burn out as you age; that's why hair turns grey and frizzy once you get to be as impossibly old as your parents. Even if you could pull this trick off, you'd get maybe one or two good uses out of it before your hair follicles gave up and decided to make you look like Einstein forever.

Things get progressively sillier from there - she starts seeing and hearing in spectrums the human senses can't detect, she can make an accurate medical diagnosis by standing in the same room as someone, and she picks up the nifty ability to control time along the way like she's the fucking Prince of Persia - until finally, this happens:

Keanu Reeves? Is that you?

Okay, Lucy, I'll bite. What's happening here? Because I have no friggen' idea. Did the director watch The Matrix before he storyboarded this scene? Are you sifting through the waves of invisible, cancer-tastic radiation that bombard us every day? Is this a hallucination brought on by the big bag of drugs you just ingested? I was paying just enough attention at this point in the movie to gather that she's supposed to be flicking through the limitless amounts of information that are now available to her super-duper brain, but from where I'm sitting, this just looks like the movie industry's worst stab at depicting autism since A Beautiful Mind. 

The connection to Lucy the Australopithecus makes no sense.

Throughout the movie, there is a recurring motif wherein Lucy the Drug Mule is compared to Lucy the Australopithecus. This is the movie's subtle way of explaining why Lucy should be the one to get all these fantastic powers - she shares the same name as the first woman who ever lived, and sharing a first name is basically just as good as sharing a destiny across 3.2 million years of human development. Fossilized Lucy was a leap forward in human evolution, and Scarlett Johansson Lucy represents the exact same leap forward for modern humans. It's a neat little connection that adds another layer of significance to the movie.

Or it would be, if any of it were true.

You can really see the resemblance. 

First of all, there actually was a real "first woman", whom all modern humans can be traced back to on their mother's side. Problem was, it wasn't Lucy. The movie producers were thinking of Mitochondrial Eve, a woman who lived in East Africa sometime between 100,000 - 200,000 years ago, well after Lucy's time. Mitochondrial Eve lived in the wake of some sort of disaster that wiped out most of the human race, and managed to breed so prolifically that we're all walking around with some variation of her mitochondrial DNA nearly a quarter of a million years later. For future reference, writers and filmmakers, if you want to play around with themes of common genetic ground, it's Mitochondrial Eve you want, not Lucy. Impress your anthropologist friends while reminding your audience that our entire species is a little bit inbred. 

And if you're of European or Asian descent, you've got a healthy chunk of Neanderthal in you too.

So who was the real Lucy? As far as we can tell, she was an adult Australopithecus afarensis who died of unknown causes around 3.2 million years ago. There's nothing particularly special about her, save for the fact that she's the most complete specimen of her species we've ever found. She wasn't a great leap forward in evolution. She wasn't the first of her kind. She wasn't exceptional in any way that we can tell. She was a random Australopithecus who happened to be kind enough to die somewhere that would preserve her bones for millions of years, and she was named after the Beatles song that was playing when she was found. Chances are, she isn't even the direct ancestor of any modern humans; remember that mysterious disaster I talked about earlier? We've had a few of those in our history, and in all likelihood, Lucy's bloodline would have ended there, well before it came to include Scarlett Johansson. 

I bet she can't even climb trees with her feet. Lucy would be disgusted with her.

If the filmmakers had actually wanted to link their main character to the oldest known hominin women ever discovered, the movie would be named Ardi -  Ardi was an Ardipithecus ramidus, a member of the species believed to be the 'missing link' between apes and hominins, and she lived a full million years before Lucy showed up.

All of Lucy's 'wisdom' is worthless.

Early on in this movie, it becomes clear to Lucy that the drug has doomed her, she doesn't have much time left to live (an especially ridiculous bit of nonsense I'll address in the next point), and she needs to figure out how to make her last 24 hours meaningful. So what does she do? Does she unite the four forces of physics? Design a better scientific method? Invent better statistics? Create great works of art, design experiments that will lead to medical breakthroughs, or program an Artificial Intelligence that's equivalent to a human mind? God, no. Those would be useful. Instead, she chooses to flap her hands around and wax poetic about time and space. You see, when an individual reaches infinite speed, its image seems to disappear, because it no longer travels in time. And without time, we cease to exist.

Also I have ten fingers on this hand.

Now, that's actually a really clever thought... and it was just as clever when Einstein published it. In freaking 1905.

Apparently Lucy wasn't clever enough to realize that the scientists she converses with at the end of the movie are stray janitors in lab coats, because anyone who was an actual expert in any sort of science should immediately recognize that Lucy is just spouting off the 110-year-old theory of Special Relativity. 

Reciting Einstein is not exactly groundbreaking, at this point. 

Lucy's other contribution to the world - a bizarre video clip in which she goes back in time from modern-day Times Square to the creation of the universe, with a brief stop in between to chill with her three-million-year-old-namesake - is equally worthless. Yes, it looks awesome. And sure, if she's managed to create an accurate computer simulation that shows all events that occurred in the entire existence of the universe, that's pretty neat. But scientifically, it's worthless. Science is based on replication and peer review; results have to be verified and sourced in order to mean anything. Yes, the scientists can go through Lucy's little simulation and use it to prove the Giant Impact Hypothesis of how the moon formed, but so what? Who is going to believe them? You can't just jot down 'a woman on super brain drugs wrote me a computer program that says this is right' in the References section of a paper. As far as the scientific community is concerned, Lucy's 'knowledge' is no more reliable than the rantings of the average homeless soapbox preacher; it's just stuff she made up while she was on drugs, without any research, observations or experiments.

This is the face you'll get when you start citing random drug addicts as sources.

At the end of the movie, we hear Lucy drop one last nugget of wisdom for us when her disembodied voice tells us "Life was given to us a billion years ago. Now you know what to do with it." Fucking what? All Lucy gave them was a bunch of hippie pseudo-science babble about the universe being connected that would have made Jack Kerouac roll his eyes at her. The only thing she said that could reasonably construed as advice was "don't stop time", and no one really had plans to do that anyway.

Her 'death' makes absolutely no sense.

Good things can't last forever, and Lucy is no exception. From the moment her new brain power sets in, Lucy knows her days are numbered. Her cells are replicating at an alarming rate to maintain her Jimmy Neutron brain blast, and it's only a matter of time until her entire body erodes into a pile of dust like the fucking Sandman, apparently.

It also apparently erodes her ability to feel empathy until she's a sociopathic shell of her former self, but that's a discussion for another day.

In the movie, Lucy gets a taste of the consequences of the drugs when her body starts to dissolve in an airplane bathroom, a problem she handily fixes by shoving more drugs in her face. If Lucy's problem is cells that divide far too rapidly, she shouldn't be dissolving - she should be developing every form of cancer known to man until she's a humanoid-shaped tumor. But for a woman who can completely control her immune responses, even that isn't a problem. Technically, you develop cancer every single day of your life. The reason that most of us are able to stave off full-fledged cancer until late life has to do with our immune system; our cells are able to detect, locate and destroy damaged cells before they start to divide out of control. If Lucy has the ability to super-power her immune system, the only thing she has to do to make sure that her body is defect-free is to sit down and shovel in enough peanut butter to fuel her revved-up immune system. She isn't in danger of immediate death. She should be freaking biologically immortal.

A trait she would share with the mighty lobster.

There aren't really words for the nonsense that leads to Lucy's ultimate sort-of demise. Sensing the upcoming failure of her body, Lucy expends the last of her energy to turn herself into a giant pillar of black goo, which eventually spits out a flash drive full of Lucy's wisdom before collapsing. But before the few people Lucy didn't shoot can begin to mourn for the emotionless, dead-eyed woman they once tolerated, a message from Lucy pops up on someone's cellphone. She's still here! She's not really dead after all, she's still alive as, uh, some sort of sentient wi-fi ghost. Uhhh... great? This raises a whole lot more questions than it answers, but thankfully, the movie comes to an end just then, because the director has just enough self-awareness to realize he's shot himself in the foot. 

There's a lot more I could say about this movie - like the fact that the main character's limitless superpowers mean there's absolutely no real suspense at any point, or the ridiculous surgery scene, or the fact that Interpol just hands over a kilogram of drugs to a strange woman because she tells them to - but I'll leave it at that. As I mentioned earlier, I can tolerate stupid movies. What I can't tolerate is movies that openly spread misinformation. 

Remember, people, to think about what you're watching - with 100% of your brain. 

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