Lucy and Philosophy
Nietzsche and Human 2.0
Okay, it’s true, Lucy’s entire plot is built upon a complete fallacy (that we use only ten percent of our brains), and, yes, the ever imaginative writer-director Luc Besson does ask us to suspend quite an awful lot of disbelief as we watch Scarlett Johansson go from being a terrified drug mule to a sociopathic personification of the internet. But Lucy is still wildly entertaining and deeply provocative. At the heart of all the drug trafficking, gunfights, Parisian mayhem, and hyperactive feminism is a somewhat paradoxical presentation of what Friedrich Nietzsche called the Übermensch, or Overman, in that it is both a kind of celebration of the Overman and a kind of criticism of him … um, I mean, her.
Without going into all the plot details, it is helpful to have a rough sense of how the story unfolds. Right at the start of the movie, Lucy is a somewhat dimwitted party girl who is, for reasons that aren’t quite clear, dating a particularly slimy and untrustworthy Frenchman. Said Frenchman forces her into delivering a package to a Korean mob boss named Mr. Jang (no first names, please) by handcuffing it to her wrist; he claims he doesn’t have the key — only Mr. Jang has the key.
The package, it turns out, is a drug called CPH4 — a synthetic reproduction of a chemical that supposedly gets released during prenatal development. Lucy is consequently captured by that humorless mob boss, knocked out, and has a packet of the drug sewn into her abdomen. During a particularly grueling scene, Lucy, still in captivity, gets beaten up by one of her captors. After being kicked in the stomach, the bag breaks and releases the CPH4 into her body. This new drug does wonders for her self-esteem. She becomes a kind of instant superhero with enhanced physical and mental capabilities, including the ability to block out pain, as well as telepathy and telekinesis. She becomes, in short, unstoppable. Welcome to Human 2.0.
Freddy Nietzsche longed for a Human 2.0. He said that the human being, as we have known him or her, is something that we ought to overcome. So Fred set up his Overman as a kind of ideal towards which we could strive. I know this particular ideal has been interpreted in a whole range of ways — by Nazis, anarchists, and various pop culture expressions — but the core of the idea is still fairly easy to pinpoint. In the first place, the Overman is supposed to represent a kind of ‘material transcendence’ — a this-worldly ideal that we can live without any hope of an afterlife. The logic of this is also pretty simple: creatures, Nietzsche claimed, have always created something beyond them. We were monkeys once, according to Darwin and his cronies, and now we’re people. With Nietzsche’s claim that ‘God is dead’ and all the horror of that pronouncement, he suggested that we should stop fantasizing about our inevitable escape from planet earth. Rather, we should embrace the world as we live in it, even as we strive to be more than what we are.
The first thing to notice here, of course, is that Lucy doesn’t become superhuman without a little help from her friends — i.e. the drugs. Even Nietzsche’s own attempts to set up an ideal Human 2.0 are built upon preconceived ideas about what would be better than being Human 1.0. So, yes, even our wildest ideals are always going to be mediated in some way. To answer Nietzsche’s question — What have you done to overcome humanity? — Lucy’s answer is actually quite simple: maybe let the drugs do the talking.
And, boy, do they do some talking. Lucy escapes from her captives — insert a lot of gunfire and death here — and gets herself to a hospital, where she interrupts a surgical procedure by killing the patient (whom she, now pumped up on hyperintellegence and exuding medical knowledge, claims was terminal anyway) and then, midway through an anesthesia-free operation during which the surgeon takes the bag of CPH4, she calmly calls her mother. She tells her mom that she can “feel everything” (although, obviously not the surgery that’s being performed on her) — that she can feel every kiss her mom planted on her face and can even remember the taste of her mother’s breast milk. It’s a bit weird, but at the same time quite beautiful to hear her take full cognizance of everything that her mother (and father) did for her. She is overwhelmed with gratitude and love for her parents. This is actually quite charming. If Human 2.0 is more aware, more compassionate and more grateful, then we may just have an ideal that is worth striving for.
But, as we soon learn, this isn’t quite what we get. As Lucy’s intelligence skyrockets, compassion and gratitude are nullified in the face of a huge amount of information. Lucy’s mind, like a psychotic in the throes of an abnormally bad manic episode, starts to do amazing things: sense people’s bodies to the point of being able to diagnose their illnesses on touch, telepathically control the minds of people and dogs, sense information patterns, and even change the way that matter itself holds together. She turns into a kind of pure possibility until eventually, while downloading herself into a supercomputer of her own creation, she becomes completely disembodied. When one of the characters asks another where she is, he is met with a response from a text on his cellphone: “I AM EVERYWHERE”. Apparently this Übermensch likes caps lock.
I said that the film seems to present a somewhat positive picture of this Overman. Of course, who wouldn’t want to be able to make people they don’t like float powerlessly in the mid air? Who wouldn’t want to be able to drive as maniacally as Lucy does, without ever once being in danger? And who wouldn’t want to be able to time-travel in their minds to the time of the dinosaurs? The only trouble is that as her brain capacity improves, Lucy seems to become more and more like a machine — an impressive storage unit for massive amounts of information — than like an improved human being. As she develops her own morality all Overman-like — a new morality that includes cruelty and a kind of hubris that laughs in the face of weakling humans — she seems to become somehow less human. Somehow her suberabundance of life looks awfully like a vehement pessimism against life.
And this, I think, is where Lucy may also be read a criticism of the Nietzschean Übermensch. It’s very cool to watch Lucy kick the butts of bad guys, but at a certain point in the film it’s almost impossible not to feel alienated from her. She becomes impersonal. It seems that she has given up her soul to the point where she is no longer the one actually willing what she is doing. The drugs really are doing all the talking. When Nietzsche writes about overcoming man, he manages to make it sound glorious and thrilling, but the result here — this Human 2.0 — is almost certainly the same thing as the suicide of Human 1.0. In the end, what looks like expansion — I AM EVERYWHERE — is in fact a complete negation: Lucy isn’t here anymore; her being everywhere is just about as good as her being nowhere. Now her entire being has been remembered in a few measly capitalized words on a screen. All she once was has now become meaningless information. There is no center, really, only periphery.
This clincher, to me at least, speaks quite directly to our current internet-crazy world, where the presence of people is so easily left out of human interactions. And yet it still seems that our limited, fragile, embodied being is an almost infinitely important thing. I think of the absolutely harrowing scene mentioned above where Lucy is victimized and beaten up; and I can’t help but consider how it is here, where we are most implored to be empathetic towards the character and through which we become most aware of her embodiedness, that Lucy seems most human. The only reason why we are compelled to stick with the character as she becomes more and more like a sociopathic robot-lady is because of those moments that connected us to her humanness. When we empathize with this vulnerable character in her very vulnerability, we become more human too. And so, yes, while Nietzsche seemed to bemoan the ‘human, all too human’, to me at least it a failure to recognize the intrinsic value of the weak ultimately amounts to a failure to be able to properly contemplate the meaning and value of strength.
Duncan Reyburn is a lecturer at the University of Pretoria, South Africa. His work centers on the intersection of philosophy, theology and visual culture. His contributions can be found in various academic journals and three books, Sacred selves: Essays in Gender, Religion and Popular Culture (Griffel 2012), Looking at Media: An Introduction to Visual Studies (Pearson 2013), Om Te Mag Dink (Aros 2013).
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