The premise in Luc Besson’s movie Lucy is the silly trope that 90% of human cerebral capacity goes unused. This is flat-out false. The human brain uses 20% of the body’s total energy but it represents only 2% of the body’s mass. Natural selection drives biological organisms to minimize waste; why would an animal build such a costly organ and let 90% of it go idle.
The plot kicks into gear as Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) is gang-pressed into becoming a drug mule, but then is suddenly able to access the full potential of the human brain when the surgically implanted packet of a new street drug ruptures inside her. This fictional drug, CPH4, is supposed to be a growth factor stimulating cell division. But runaway cell division is cancer; just how cerebral metastasis enables Lucy to obtain supreme knowledge is a bit murky. The entire movie is supposed to have taken place in 24 hours, but this is about how long it takes one mammalian cell to divide in two.
Once the drug takes hold, Lucy gains the power of roughly every comic book superhero from Popeye to Superman tossed into a blender and made into a slurry. Among her powers: Super intelligence, super strength, ESP, complete control of all the cells in her body, the ability to control other people’s bodies, mind reading, telekinesis, the talent to tap into mass electronic communications using only her mind in a way that would give Edward Snowden a panic attack. However, a more realistic side effect of a sudden increase in brain cells would be amnesia; recent research indicates that birth of new neurons in the growing brains of young children is one of the reasons we can’t remember events from when our head was still expanding to its adult size. The new neurons seem to disrupt the existing connections between neurons holding memories.
(Children and infants do learn and remember things: The sound of their mother’s voice, how to walk, and how recognize distinct sounds in their native language, to name a few things. What we lack from our early life experience is declarative memory. Experience and awareness are necessary to form a “schema,” a complete and coherent combination of meaningful events and emotions in a temporal sequence, related to memories already stored in the mind.)
There are some other scientific boners that crop up in Lucy. Dolphins do not use twice as much of their brain as humans do, and other animals do not use less of their brains than humans. Humans are smarter because of our increased cortical network, which supports more complex information processing. Whales and dolphins may have big brains, but their cerebral cortexes are much simpler in structure than in primate brains or even the brain of your pet dog. Contrary to the movie, echolocation in dolphins is not evidence of superior intelligence. After all, bats do it. So do shrews and some birds. None of these critters are considered Einsteins of the animal world.
Look, I don’t want to be a killjoy. Why quibble over the delightful goose laying the golden eggs in “Jack and the Beanstalk,” or the construction of Icarus’ waxwork wings, because the premise for the fantasy is inconsistent with science? Fantasy can illuminate human nature in a compelling way. But in Lucy, the story does not progress beyond the absurd premise. Look a golden egg! Wow, she laid another one! Look another one and it is even bigger…amazing special effects! The viewer gets anxious to see what will happen when Lucy finally reaches 100% of her brain capacity. When we finally get there, the answer—involving the meaning of life and a thumb drive—is an enormous let-down. Icarus crashing to earth when his wings melt from flying too close to the sun makes an eloquent point. The message in Lucy is trivial: that if we could have god-like knowledge we wouldn’t know what to do with it, other than stick someone else with it.
Rating: 1 out of 5 neurons