It’s that time again — I have to put on my big boy pants and a clean shirt and stand up in front of a bunch of eager students and pretend to know everything. I’m teaching our introductory course, Fundamentals of Genetics, Evolution, and Development, and also our core Cell Biology course. So I prepared by going to the movies at the Morris Theater. This week, they were playing Guardians of the Galaxy and Lucy.
Guardians of the Galaxy was…OK. I enjoyed it, but it suffered from Heightened Expectations — I’ve been hearing so much enthusiasm about it that I walked in expecting the second coming of the love child of Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark, and there was just no way it could live up to that hype. What I did find was an amiable movie that didn’t take itself too seriously, with a good cast that fit some narrowly defined roles well, that rolled entertainingly to its conclusion with no dreary lulls in the action. I will go to the sequel (you know there will be at least one) with diminished expectations and probably enjoy it even more, if they don’t screw it up. It was well-crafted popcorn.
My major complaints are about the plot and the villain. It did a good job of breaking out of the rut of comic book movies — do I really want to see another Batman movie, ever again? No I do not — but the plot was lazy, hackneyed noise. There is a McGuffin, see, a kind of magic walnut, that can destroy entire worlds. The good guys have to keep the McGuffin away from the bad guy, who wants to destroy entire worlds. It’s an awfully thin and unbelievable thread on which to hang a whole new universe. Could we someday have an SF movie that isn’t about colossal events on which the fate of the entire universe depends, all managed by a handful of colorfully dressed humans?
And that villain — some shouty dude who put on his kabuki makeup while drunk. He was just some guy who wanted the magic walnut so he could blow up a planet he didn’t like. Why? We don’t know, he was just angry and megalomaniacal. Didn’t care about him. Didn’t find him at all interesting. Didn’t find his cause very compelling. Didn’t care when…OK, I won’t tell you what happens to him, but don’t worry, when it does, you won’t particularly care.
So enjoy it for the stage setting and the dramatis personae, but don’t walk in expecting a very good story. Maybe they’ll get some writers for Guardians of the Galaxy II who are able to think beyond a story centered on whether a very big explosion happens or not.
Now, Lucy: I’ve had one person tell me they enjoyed it, and I can sort of see that. It’s a Luc Besson movie. He can make shows that are good to look at, and a lot of the film is spent dwelling on Scarlett Johansson’s face, as he does. There are strange set-pieces where she uses her super powers, exotic technologies doing exotic things, and there are lovely French accents from angular men with interesting faces and manly stubble.
But I could not get past the desire to punch Morgan Freeman in the nose.
The premise of the movie is set up with a lecture by Distinguished Scientist Morgan Freeman, who tells a rapt and diverse audience that 1) life began on earth one billion years ago, 2) animals evolved several million years ago, 3) most animals use only 3-5% of their cerebral capacity, with two exceptions: 4) humans use 10% of their brain, and 5) dolphins use 15%, because sonar. He ‘hypothesizes’ about what would happen if 6) someone learned to use 20%, 40%, 60%, but he can’t even imagine what powers they’d have if they could use all of it. He’s been studying these phenomena for 20 years, and is so famous that he’s been invited to some prestigious Parisian institute to study it some more, or maybe to just stand around talking about it.
OK, Morgan Freeman and Luc Besson, how can you center your entire movie on a set of stupid claims that could be debunked with two minutes on Snopes and Wikipedia? How arrogant must you be to spend millions of dollars on a story built around your ignorant misconceptions without ever bothering to check whether your premises are valid? This thing had to have had multiple contributors in the planning stages, and not one spoke up to point out that Besson was wrong. Besson could have literally walked up to a nearby public school in France, asked to talk to a biology teacher, and spent 5 minutes in conversation and learned that everything he thought was a good point to make was totally daft.
I worked on the scientific part for a couple of years first before I go to even think about the script.
Liar. Unless he thinks “worked on” is synonymous with “toking up and daydreaming.”
He’s also running about now claiming that the magic drug, CPH4, is real, and that it is produced in tiny amounts during pregnancy, in which it goes off like an “atomic bomb” to trigger amazing things in the brain. CPH4 is real, all right — it’s an enzyme that catalyzes one step in tetrahydropterin synthesis. One small step. It’s produced in small quantities because an excess wouldn’t do much of anything. I suspect he got a tiny nugget of information somewhere that was relevant to his thesis: tetrahydropterin plays a role in phenylalanine metabolism. Deficiencies in phenylalanine processing lead to a terrible genetic disease: phenylketonuria, PKU, which untreated, can lead to severe mental retardation and death. So I suspect he naively flipped that around, and figured that if you have more of this enzyme, rather than less, you get the opposite of brain damage, which is ESP and telekinesis and the ability to control other people’s minds.
It also didn’t help that Scarlett Johansson’s role was to go from terrified woman kidnapped by gangsters in the first five minutes, to super-intelligent automaton once the magic drugs kick in, and her acting instructions seem to be to be totally expressionless, talk very fast, and show no emotions at all, because as we all know, the more intelligent you are, the more like a robot you become.
I’ll let Luc Besson have the final word.
Some people are complaining about the fact that the science behind your film — the whole idea that humans only use 10 percent of their brains — is not true. What’s your response to that?
It’s totally not true. Do they think that I don’t know this? I work on this thing for nine years and they think that I don’t know it’s not true? Of course I know it’s not true! But, you know, there are lots of facts in the film that are totally right. The CPH4, even if it’s not the real name — because I want to hide the real name — this molecule exists and is carried by the woman at six weeks of pregnancy. Yes, it’s true that every cell in our body is sending 1,000 messages per second, per cell. And in fact, 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 percent of our neurons at one time. We never use 100 [percent]. We use 15 percent on [the] left, and then after, we use 15 percent on the right. But we never use more than 15 percent at one time.
The 10 percent 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. [Laughs.] What’s more interesting — more than the 10 percent or the 15 percent — 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.
Just an offer, Luc: next time you want to make a science fiction movie, come talk to me. I won’t suck up to you and pretend the big name director’s wacky ideas about science are “logical” — I’ll tell you they’re bullshit. You really need that right now, because Lucy was fucking embarrassing.
Oh, well, I’m giving a lecture on the scientific method to 50 students today. I now know not to try to sound like Morgan Freeman.