The film ‘Lucy’ and the Zeitgeist
Last night I went to see ‘Lucy’, the new film written and directed by the stylish French director Luc Besson – his previous films include ‘The Fifth Element’ and ‘La Femme Nikita’. I knew little about this film apart that it starred Scarlett Johannson – Hollywood’s current most-in-demand actress – and that it was being advertised all over London with the tagline:
“The average person uses 10% of their brain capacity. Imagine what she could do with 100%.”
As the film began, and I was wincing as the body count started building quickly and a potential torture scene unfolded, I thought I had a made a big mistake in coming to see this film. As the film progressed, however, I began to see themes in the film that were familiar to me from my ayahuasca experiences. By the end of the film, I was convinced the director must have taken ayahuasca – especially as I know that its consumption is increasingly common and fashionable for Hollywood creative types, as clearly evidenced a while back in the film ‘Avatar’ and noted with a passing reference in the shamanic scenes in Darren Aronofsky’s ‘Noah.’
Further reflection, though, led me to think that rather than (or in addition to) having taken ayahuasca, the director was picking up on themes that are part of the zeitgeist of the moment – aspects of the collective unconscious of the moment can often be glimpsed through the medium of popular film.
Five key themes include:
- Consciousness and the brain
The central idea in the film, as already outlined in the tagline, is what is commonly referred to as ‘the ten per cent of brain myth’. i.e. the notion that we only use 10% of our brain capacity so each of us has this enormous untapped potential. This has become a popular meme in in our culture, especially within the the self-help movement.
Basic neuroscience, however, suggests otherwise and claims the 10% notion is an urban myth and basically stems from a misunderstanding of the fact that we still don’t know much about how the brain operates but we do know that all parts of the brain are used.
In an article in Scientific American (2008) entitled “Do People only use 10% of their Brains”, John Henley, a neurologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota states: “Evidence would show over a day you use 100 percent of the brain.” In the same article, Barry Gordon, another neurologist, says:“We use virtually every part of the brain, and that [most of] the brain is active almost all the time.”
In the film, the main character’s (Lucy) brain is expanded through accidental ingestion of a newly synthesized drug. This has the effect of hugely expanding her consciousness. This is a different matter to increasing brain capacity – the relationship between mind and consciousness remains a mystery despite mechanistic scientists wanting to reduce consciousness to brain functioning.
As Lucy’s field of consciousness expands, she is first able to access her own very early memories, then tune into other peoples’ minds, and see other peoples’ energy fields which enables her to diagnose and predict specific illnesses they will suffer from. At one point, she says: “I can feel every living thing”. All of this is familiar territory for ayahuasca and other entheogen users.
- Matter and Energy
Since Einstein and quantum physics, we have known that matter and energy are interchangeable. The film plays with this idea showing Lucy developing powerful telekinetic abilities as her brain capacity racks up. She can do a lot more than twisting spoons – she gets burly Taiwanese gangsters to levitate and stick to the ceiling.
As Lucy’s brain capacity gets closer to 100%, and she moves way beyond normal human emotional attachments, she is able to travel in space and time and thereby access all of the universe’s history. When she hits 100%, she becomes pure consciousness and physically disappears. When one of the characters asks where she has gone, the response appears on his cellphone that “I am everywhere.”
The film also reflects the idea that currently global consciousness is rapidly evolving.
This is shown in two different ways in the film. One is that in the future human consciousness and technology will merge, creating powerful cyborgs. In the film, Lucy is able to merge her consciousness with computers and create a new generation living super-computer. The second possibility, common to much new-age philosophy, is that both planetary and individual consciousness are going through a key transition point – often described as reaching a higher level of vibration – of which Lucy is a pioneering, hugely accelerated example.
At one point in her journey into limitless consciousness, Lucy is able to encounter her long distant ancestor, the prehistoric ape woman discovered in 1974 in Ethiopia and estimated to have lived 3.2 million years ago. She was first called AL 288-1 but was then nicknamed Lucy.
In the film, the human Lucy reaches out and points her index finger towards the monkey Lucy who reciprocates the gesture. The two touch one another at finger-tip point – all of which suggests the famous painting by Michelangelo of God reaching out to create Adam. This suggests radical, defiantly non-mainstream ideas of evolutionary history which suggest that at some point in human evolution, other beings (usually extra-terrestrial but in this case a figure from the future) intervened.
- The return of the feminine
As in Besson’s other principal films, the lead figure is female, a particularly kick-ass heroine at that too. A review in Le Parisien stated: “Some have called this a feminist film, and though we will not go that far, it would be wrong to deny that a woman is portrayed as the source of solutions intended to save the world.”
Having picked out these five themes, what I then find especially interesting is the way they are imagined and portrayed in the film. Of course, as a film maker, and clearly a highly film-literate Director, Besson’s medium to express these themes is through film. And that is where the film is particularly peculiar and disconcerting. It uses nearly all the genres of film at its disposal, which makes it difficult to label.
After opening with Tarantino-like shoot outs, which recur throughout the film, and a female protagonist bent on revenge directly imported from ‘Kill Bill’, it then has elements drawn from nature documentaries, Chinese gangster films, arty martial arts films like “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, classic car-chase scenes, exotic locations (Paris and Taiwan), hints of romance, lyrical meditations on the nature of life, love and the universe, and concludes, as one review I read stated, with the final ten minutes playing “like a Greatest Hits of science-fiction “trip” movies.” It even manages to include some comic moments.
The list of possible film references is endless – one can see elements of ‘The Matrix’ and ‘The Terminator’ in the film as well as all the superhero films about people with special powers
Additionally, all the principal characters in the film are stereotypes: the liberal, progressive, humane, trustworthy, brilliant professor type, played by Morgan Freeman; the evil, oriental, ruthless psychopathic, gangster type; the tough-looking, existentially weary French cop, who could have been lifted from the French Connection movies.
The question then that intrigues me is – how self-consciously is the director using these genres? Is he also making a comment on the nature of films as a way to frame and understand experience? Or are these genres so much part of our imaginative life these days that we, like him, use them unreflectingly to describe experience.
Besson himself described the film as really being three films in one. But in fact it is many films.
Overall, I think there is a problem here. Ultimately, in a film that at times appears to be contemplating the mystery of life, its way of understanding and resolving the mystery, is through first immersing us in spectacular, high-speed visual imagery. It was not for nothing that Rudolf Steiner, the esoteric Austrian philosopher was concerned about the impact of television on the imagination. James Hillman too warns us of the dangers of the kinds of images we allow into our minds. I’ve noticed in my own ayahuasca ceremonies, especially the earlier parts, how my mind is saturated with these kind of images. My subconscious and surface levels of the deeper unconscious have become one vast Hollywood B-movie.
What Besson did do for me at least in the film, whether unwittingly or not, is get me to look at and think about all these film-based ways of giving underlying structure to our experience, even if I was also simultaneously enjoyably and hugely carried along for the ride.
But it is telling that the final notes of the film stay within the dominant, rational, progress-based, enlightenment motif. Lucy sees, guided by her professor mentor, that her ultimate task, like that of any human being, is to add to human knowledge. She has been given an unexpected and vast opportunity to do this. And how does all this extraordinary knowledge gained from her voyaging to the origins of the universe, and the sacrifice of her personal existence, ultimately get expressed – in a sleek black USB. The mystery has become instrumentalized, turned into technology for human use, even if at the same time the question is raised as to whether humanity with its greed and drive for power, can appropriately use this knowledge.
Have you seen the film? What did you think of it?