We’ll start with Lucy; not only is it the most recent movie on this list but its transhumanist theme is one of the most obvious. And given these two facts, it is also a useful place to begin because Lucy also happens to provide a neat little example of precisely how a movie should absolutely, completely and utterly not present the concept of transhumanism.
Lucy is an average American woman living in Taipan when she is kidnapped by a Korean drug-trafficking gang, and forced into carrying a bag – sewn into her abdomen – of a particularly powerful substance known as CPH4. Following a fight with one of her captors, the bag splits and the contents begin to seep into her bloodstream, immediately causing significantly increased physical and mental capabilities. As more of the drug enters Lucy’s system, these abilities continue to grow, giving her telepathic powers, enhanced speed and strength, the capacity for mental time travel, and eventual absolute telekinetic control over everyone and everything – organic and technological – in her environment.
The transhumanism premise of Lucy is a smart one, drawing on that well known theory that human beings use only 10% of their brains, and exploring what it might look like should we finally be able to exceed that. And for perhaps the first third of Lucy, before her brain reaches hugely increased percentages – even just the potential is exciting and intriguing. But as the movie progresses, and along with it Lucy’s abilities, the doubts begin….
Questions start to vaguely float across our own measly brain. Questions that get more and more demanding as the movie goes on and Lucy begins to demonstrate all manner of skills from mind reading to shape-shifting. Questions all of which can be summarized in the end quite simply by the word – how? How, exactly, is this happening?
Take for example Besson’s idea that a brain operating at above 20% of its usual function would instantly be able to read any language. The concept itself is perfectly acceptable, but surely it would have to be that such a brain could learn any language. Lucy is not able to read Taiwanese – yet the symbols on the hospital signs simply translate themselves in mid-air before her eyes. There is no proper link between her enhanced ability and the new language, just the rather absurd implication that an expanded brain would simply know all human languages.
Another example is Lucy’s ability to alter her appearance at will – such as the colour and length of her hair; hair colour is in human DNA, and the length has literally nothing to do with anything other than a person’s choice – the fact that Lucy can change both of these things is only just short of ludicrous (as – I think we can all agree – is her choice of the black bob).
Obviously – and as we said in the introduction – science fiction can get away with having to answer a lot less of ‘hows?” and “whys?” than other genres of movies (some people are still frequently having to remind themselves not to ask why Frodo and Sam didn’t just use the eagles to fly the Ring to Mount Doom, thus saving themselves and the rest of Middle Earth a fair amount of death, trauma and destruction….) And Lucy is by no means a terrible movie despite the loopholes; until the rather ridiculous ending (which, incidentally, goes the extreme transhumanist route that human beings may in the end not even actually need a physical body at all ) it can be watched fairly comfortably, provided that one’s suspension of disbelief is well and truly in place (and by that I mean cryogenically frozen, flown into outer space and buried a thousand feet under the surface of Neptune).
But one of the best things about movies that deal with futuristic science is being able to come away feeling pierced by the cleverness with which the filmmakers had thought out their concepts – that is, a feeling of wonder that somehow, someday, this might be possible. The explanation as to how doesn’t need to be realistically achievable (again, can’t stress this enough, this is the point of the relationship between cinema and science) but good science fiction will still have some of the answers, simply because the filmmakers will have thought of them and built on them in such a way that the audience can understand them (and preferably without the need for the film classification board to have to add “PhD” to its list of guidance categories).
Despite its ambition, Lucy just can’t deliver this. Either Besson simply couldn’t come up with a basis on which these abilities could become possible, and so while directing Lucy just hoped that the sheer volume of action would be enough to hold the audiences’ attention, or he knows exactly how and why to achieve this ultimate transhumanist dream, but just didn’t feel the need to share it with anyone else (in which case Luc, there’s a large institute in Oxford, England called ‘The Future of Humanity’ who might be giving you a call).
Given its premise, and the occasional flashes of philosophical depth about the nature of the human being as it is at the moment, Lucy had the potential to be something truly stirring. But overall it is no surprise that the two themes that dominated the critics’ comments were: “Silliness” and “lack of logic.”
Lucy is simply a perfect example of the science of transhumanism as it really is at the moment; a lot of pie-in-the-sky science fiction, which despite the apparently heavy reliance on science, actually requires some pretty serious leaps of just good old plain faith.
But it is still a lot of fun.