Bad Science On The Big Screen

Jeffrey Kluger is frustrated by Lucy, a film premised on the widely believed misconception that we only use 10 percent of our brains:

The fact is, the brain is overworked as it is, 3 lbs. (1,400 gm) of tissue stuffed into a skull that can barely hold it all. There’s a reason the human brain is as wrinkled as it is and that’s because the more it grew as we developed, the more it bumped up against the limits of the cranium; the only way to increase the surface area of the neocortex sufficiently to handle the advanced data crunching we do was to add convolutions. Open up the cerebral cortex and smooth it out and it would measure 2.5 sq. ft. (2,500 sq cm). Wrinkles are a clumsy solution to a problem that never would have presented itself in the first place if 90% of our disk space were going to waste.

What’s more, our bodies simply couldn’t afford to maintain so much idle neuronal tissue since the brain is an exceedingly expensive organ to own and operate—at least in terms of energy needs…. “We were a nutritionally marginal species early on,” the late William Greenough, a psychologist and brain development expert at the University of Illinois, told me for my 2007 book Simplexity. “A synapse is a very costly thing to support.”

So why does the myth persist? A theory from neuroscientist David Eagleman:

I think it’s because it gives us a sense that there’s something there to be unlocked, that we could be so much better than we could. And really, this has the same appeal as any fairytale or superhero story. I mean, it’s the neural equivalent to Peter Parker becoming Spiderman.

Putting the scientific misinformation aside, Richard Brody feels the film doesn’t live up to its ambitions:

The grand-scale part comes when Lucy’s control of ambient energy taps into the mainframe of existence, the core of space and time. The trailer shows some wondrous stop-motion effects in Times Square and Lucy’s power to swipe action in and out, from high-speed to frozen and back, with her hand, as if swiping along a smartphone or tablet screen. [Writer/director Luc] Besson takes this idea audaciously, exhilaratingly far. I won’t spoil the contemplative delight, except to say that he comes amazingly close to territory covered in the more visionary moments of Malick’s “The Tree of Life.” Even now, I can hardly believe what I saw in “Lucy.”

Yet Malick’s movie—with its authentically profound considerations of the links between experience and transcendence, between ordinary life and intuitions of the absolute, between scientific knowledge and religious ecstasy—has an aesthetic, a style, a tone, a mood, which cohere with its grand ideas. His scenes of family drama in Texas, featuring such actors as Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain, are filmed as distinctively and with as original and imaginative a vision as his synthetic images of the beyond, and the substance of that drama (down to the role of music in it, which meshes with the music heard on the soundtrack) is integral to his cinematic-philosophical creation.

Besson, by contrast, films the action with energy and flair but little originality. He realizes his characters with virtually no tendrils of identity to link up to his grander conceit.

Previous Dish on Tree of Life and Malick here. Update from a reader:

My guess is you will receive a version of this from others, but here’s mine:

You mean to tell me that light sabres aren’t real? Or that radioactive spiders can’t bite me and turn me into a superhero? Or that time travel may not actually exist?

It’s a movie, Poindexter. Shut up and let me watch the hot girl kick ass, OK?