August 1, 2014 Film ReviewsUpdates

The notion that Homo sapiens only use ten per cent of their brains has become commonplace; a truism whose sources include the psychological theories of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and various branches of popular culture, including books, films and short stories. While the credibility of this concept has been questioned in recent times, its suggestive possibilities and tantalising implications continue to ignite and fuel the imagination.

Assuming that we only utilise a small portion of our brain power, what would happen if this limitation could be overcome? How would we relate to our world and the people in it, if we could exponentially elevate our cerebral capacity and even reach its zenith?

These enquiries find ample consideration and screen time in writer/director Luc Besson’s immense and sprawling Lucy (2014). The titular character, played by Scarlett Johansson, is a twenty-five year-old American woman residing and studying in Taipei, Taiwan. When Lucy becomes embroiled in an underworld drug trafficking racket and succumbs to the illicit synthetic substance CPH4, she gains access to uncharted zones of her mind and expediently harnesses their astonishing capabilities, including the power to manipulate objects and people, integrate with electromagnetic networks and cybernetic technologies, and even transform her experience of time and space.

Under Besson’s assured and audacious direction, Lucy balances the accelerated pace and high body-count fervour of the action thriller with the high-tech, slide-and-scroll, touchscreen aesthetic and Morpheus-like meditations of science fiction, including reflections on neuroscience, biotechnology and anthropology  mediated via the venerable and urbane figure of Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman), Lucy’s empathetic and intellectual ally.

The result? An ambitious and exhilarating testament to one of the most powerful and sublime entities in the universe: the enigmatic and infinitely astounding human brain. By envisioning the havoc that ensues when a woman with advanced intelligence is scorned and subsequently bent on exacting justice, Lucy will leave you enthralled and oddly enlightened with its narrative of merciless retribution, existential striving and universal interconnectivity.

In a recent interview, Besson elaborated on his chosen premise and addressed the controversy surrounding its scientific veracity:

The theory of the 10 percent is an old theory from the ’60s. It’s never been proven. Some people worked on it, and it sounds like it’s not the truth. What is true is that we’re using only 15 per cent of our neurons at one time. We never use 100 [per cent]. We use 15 per cent on [the] left, and then after, we use 15 per cent on the right. But we never use more than 15 per cent at one time. [In Lucy], the 10 per cent is a metaphor in a way. So that’s why I was not bothered by that. I’m always amazed by these people who become scientists at the last minute and go, “This is wrong!” Of course; it’s a film. What’s more interesting – more than the 10 per cent or the 15 per cent – is that if we get the capacity of full intelligence, in the film, we say that the first step is the control of the cell, the second step is the control of others, the third is the control of matter, and the fourth is the control of time. And I talked to a lot of scientists, and they believe that at least the first three are possible. They don’t say it’s true, but it’s at least logical. The good thing is when you take a lot of things that are totally right and mix them very well with a few things that are wrong, at the end of the film, you think everything is real. And that’s the magic of film.


Belief and magic are, of course, inseparable from the irresistible allure and enduring charm of cinema and the suspension of disbelief that conditions its reception and spectatorship. I am reminded, here, of Richard Corliss’ recent description of cinema as ‘that technological conjuring trick that fools viewers into believing the impossible.’ But is the artificial contrivance of cinema (its power to make the impossible plausible) not also its supreme gift and the source of its immeasurable potential? Does it not enable the medium to entertain new possibilities for perception and representation?

I would hope so. Indeed, among the innumerable reasons to go and see Lucy, herein lies perhaps the most thought-provoking: she may boost your own cerebral capabilities and leave you with something singular to ponder: searching for a place in your own universe and learning to live the life that you were fortuitously granted.


– Dr. Varga Hosseini