Saturday, August 09, 2014

Unrealized Potential

The other night Scott and I went to see the movie “Lucy.”
We did so, despite the fact that we object to the central premise of the movie, because it was from Luc Besson and featured Scarlett Johansson, and we thought that would make for an interesting combination.  Kind of like if you blended the action from “Taken” with the physics-bending visuals of “The Matrix,” but with Scarlett Johansson instead of Liam Neeson or Keanu Reeves.
Besides, the movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe have firmly established that I greatly enjoy watching Scarlett Johansson kicking people’s asses.
Unfortunately, while there were some great scenes of batshit insane action, the movie proved disappointing.
As a friend on Facebook put it:

It's hard to think you could screw up "what if Scarlet Johansson became Dr. Manhattan?" but they managed it.

Yes.  Yes, they did.  And I don’t say that just because the movie didn’t feature Scarlett Johansson sharing Dr. Manhattan’s fashion sense, though that certainly would have helped.
(It couldn’t have hurt, anyway.)
But no, the issue was that central premise that Scott and I decided to grit our teeth and ignore.  The movie made that an impossible feat, however, as that premise was woven into virtually every scene.
That premise being that we humans only use 10% of our brain, that we all have lurking within us a vast, untapped potential.  After all, look at all we’ve accomplished with a mere 10%.  Just imagine what we could do, what sort of superhuman abilities we would have, if we could unleash even a few more percentage points of our potential?  What would happen if we used 100%?
That’s the question that the movie seeks to answer when Johansson, as the titular Lucy, is exposed to a drug that unlocks that potential.
The problem, however, is that the “10%” thing is just a myth, one that has been so thoroughly debunked that it’s almost inconceivable that anyone would still think that it’s a viable plot device.
Further, even if you don’t have much of an understanding of how the brain works, just stopping to think about it for a few minutes will lead you to conclude that it’s bullshit.
Let’s do that thinking right now, shall we?  All it takes is answering a simple question:  If you truly believe that humans only use 10% of their brain, would you mind if I shot you in the 90% you aren’t using?
Sure, a 10% chance of being permanently injured or even killed might not seem like great odds, but the fact remains that you probably aren’t willing to part with 90% of your brain.
In reality, we do use 100% of our brains, we just don’t use that much all the time.  We couldn’t; different areas of the brain perform different functions, some of which are in direct conflict with each other.
How could using your brain’s total capacity actually be a good thing anyway?  Think about how well your computer works when its CPU usage spikes up to 100%.  If you were using 100% of your brain, to continue with the computer metaphor, it would be even worse than that, because you would not only be using 100% of your processing power, you’d be using up 100% of your available storage and all of your RAM at the same time.  That doesn’t sound like a computer that’s performing better than a “normal” computer.
Of course, I don’t think that’s really the idea that the 10% believers are getting at anyway.  What they really seem to think is that there is either some greater efficiency that can be achieved within the brain, or that there is some as-yet unknown mechanism in the brain that can be accessed to unleash superhuman abilities.
However, there are still some underlying problems with that idea.  We may not have a complete understanding of the brain and how it works, but do know enough to know that there is no hidden mechanism.  And while there could be some improvements to efficiency, they’re not going to lead to being able to read minds or control gravity.  Mostly they’ll just improve your memory or your ability to maintain focus.  Which, you know, great.  I’m all for it.
But the idea that the brain is capable of so much more, that it has hidden godlike powers is just silly.
Let’s consider it from two perspectives.
If you’re a creationist of any stripe, this would indicate that whatever god or gods created humans completely overengineered the brain when making humans, then installed some sort of governor in it to throttle it back by 90%.  What for?  I mean, I could see building in some redundancy or whatever, but that approach just seems both bizarre and cruel.  And it’s also silly; the brain, as it’s used in its current state, is already capable of pretty amazing things.  Why not just build it as is, particularly if you’re not going to allow any of the other features to be turned on?  Of course, maybe I’d understand the designer’s thinking better if I used more of my brain’s potential.  Too bad the designer made sure that it’s impossible.
In evolutionary terms, this would indicate that at some point in its evolution, the brain overshot the mark, developed all of these amazing capabilities, and then turned off its access to them.  This does not align with any sort of evolutionary theory.
And sure, you can point to various people who have amazing mental abilities – though not quite so amazing as what Lucy displays – such as the guy who can draw a detailed picture of an entire city after flying over it in a helicopter once, or point to some of the experiments that have been done with stimulating different portions of the brain, or things like synesthesia.
But those abilities usually come at the cost of other abilities and functions of the brain.  They don’t really indicate that someone is using any more – or less – of his or her brain’s potential, just that the existing potential is being used differently.
Let’s get back to the movie itself for a moment.  At one point in her march towards 100% Lucy states that she no longer feels pain or fear.  That, to me, indicates that she’s actually using less of her brain’s potential.
Why, you may wonder, does this bother me so much?  After all, I’m perfectly capable of suspending my disbelief.  I regularly consume – and enjoy – stories about men, women, aliens, robots, and gods who can fly, control the weather, and perform all manner of impossible feats.  Why couldn’t I just let this particular trope slide, the way I do things like, “He was born on another planet and our yellow sun supercharges his cells,” or “He has a magic hammer,” or, to go back to the mention of Dr. Manhattan, “He was disintegrated in a nuclear reactor and then put himself back together, developing godlike abilities in the process,” or hell, even the “metagene” from the DCU or the “X gene” from Marvel?
I suppose it’s a combination of things.  For one, it’s just really overused.  It ranks up there with “all of humanity’s technological achievements are based on reverse-engineered alien technology.”  For another, it bleeds over into real-life in a way that some of those other things don’t.  I’m unlikely to meet someone who actually believes that someone being bitten by a radioactive spider will do anything other than lead to radiation poisoning, but there are plenty of people who honestly believe the 10% thing.
(The alien technology thing bothers me for similar reasons, though a real-world belief in that is somewhat less common, but the main reason it bothers me is because it’s insulting.  I’m not always humanity’s biggest fan, but I know better than to think that we’re incapable of coming up with brilliant ideas on our own.  People often suck, but they’re also pretty amazing.  Which is why I get so irritated when they suck.  But I digress.)
But that’s why it irritates me in general.  In the specific case of this movie, it was because of how thoroughly invested they were in this bogus idea.  If the 10% thing had just been a quick handwave explanation for her having these powers, I would have been able to just roll my eyes, and then go with it.  But they didn’t stop there.  At various points, we were informed of what percentage Lucy was at, and there were extended scenes featuring Morgan Freeman, as some sort of brain “expert,” giving a lecture about the 10% myth as though it were some sort of credible scientific theory.
While Freeman’s character does, when questioned, admit that it has no scientific basis – which, leads you to wonder why he’s being allowed to lecture on this in front of scientists and science students without being booed off the stage, and instead being greeted with rapt attention and fawning praise – he rattles off ideas about what powers a person might have upon achieving certain percentage points.  Which, of course, aligns exactly with the powers that Lucy develops.  Still, just using some weasel words about it being his hypothesis isn’t good enough, given that he has nothing on which to base this hypothesis.  As I said to Scott during one of the lecture scenes, “And if I reach 30% of the way up my ass, I can pull out this speculation about what kind of powers people would have if they used more of their brain's potential.”
Honestly, the lecture scenes – which would have been even more interminable if they weren’t intercut with action sequences in which Lucy displays the abilities Morgan Freeman pulls out of his ass – reminded me of something you might see in an anti-evolution Chick tract, minus the Bible-believing freshman who stands up and demolishes the misguided scientist’s theories.  Which is to say that it was a lecture that had only a superficial resemblance to reality and involved someone spotting off nonsense to a room full of credulous idiots.  It’s like setting up a strawman and then forgetting to knock him down.
With that said, there were elements of the movie that I enjoyed, with some really cool action sequences, and Johansson doing a great job of portraying the shift in Lucy’s personality as she continued developing her potential.
Honestly, unlike the human brain, the movie had a lot more potential that it could have tapped into.  Dropping the lecture scenes would have helped, though much of that was included for the purposes of including some sort of pseudo-intellectual ramblings about the meaning of life and the nature of humanity, which I’m sure seemed deep and meaningful to some people – particularly given that they were imbued with the gravitas that comes from being spoken by Morgan Freeman – but ultimately they had no substance.
And just coming up with a different explanation – anything* – for how Lucy developed her abilities would have made it the kind of movie that would let you say, “It was good for what it was.”  But you can’t really say that about it, because its attempt to be more than what it was proved to be an insurmountable obstacle.
Also, they really should have gone the Dr. Manhattan route when it came to Johansson’s wardrobe.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that Scott and I did a double feature that night, and “Lucy” ended up being the second movie of the night, following our viewing of “Guardians of the Galaxy.”
Pretty much any movie was going to suffer in comparison to that one, so my perception of the quality of “Lucy” was probably a bit skewed.
”Guardians,” unlike “Lucy,” is definitely a movie that is “good for what it is,” with “awesomely entertaining” being what it is.
It’s already making all of the money, and it deserves to, but if “all of the money” does not yet include yours, you need to make some changes in your life.  Use more than 10% of your brain and go see it.

*For example, they could have used a variant of the alien technology trope that I dislike and said that the drug was made from alien DNA, and it wouldn’t have bothered me if they had just stuck with that as the launching point to kick off a bunch of mind-bending action and didn’t dwell on it overmuch.


Anonymous said...

Out of curiosity, were you thinking of anything in particular re: reverse engineering. It sounds familiar but nothing's coming to mind except for that Marvel plotline where Kang's responsible for all of Earth's computer tech.

Jon-Paul Maki said...

"Men in Black," "Independence Day," "Transformers." I'm sure there are a lot more, but those are the ones that spring to mind.
And of course, looking elsewhere, there's "Ancient Aliens," and the general notion of aliens teaching ancient peoples advanced concepts.