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Monday, July 28 2014

Movie Review: Lucy, and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

One of the big reasons why fans love Science Fiction is the way that SF provides one of the last, best avenues for exploring some of the really big, timeless questions. Most good SF is about the ideas that define who and what we are, our reason for being, and the meaning of what it is to be human. Two outstanding examples of this are in theaters now: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and Lucy, which just opened this weekend.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the newest entry in the current reboot of the popular science fiction franchise, picks up a few years after the end of the last film. The story is set in a world where intelligent, literate apes are busy developing their own society and culture, while the tattered remnants of a human race devastated by disease and war is beginning to pick itself back up and re-establish human civilization.

Given the milieu, it is a foregone conclusion that the two societies will come into conflict.

This movie starts off facing a stiff challenge. Just about anyone can, without having to think too hard, come up with two or three recent movies where such excessive attention is paid to creating gobsmacking special effects, that it detracts from the movie as a whole, and especially from the storytelling.

 In this regard, Dawn manages a minor miracle. With a story so dependent on modern, digital SFX that it would have been impossible to make even fifteen years ago, it still manages to allow the viewer to forget that the apes they are watching onscreen never existed at all. Much of the credit for that must go to the writers, who 1) manage to weave complex, multi-dimensional characters into 2) a compelling narrative with plot twists that don't always lead where you think they're going to, that 3) seeks to explore some of the inherent pitfalls in one of the most persistent philosophical questions in human history:

'Who's "we," kemosabe?"

Every major conflict in history pitting one group of people against another has boiled down to this fundamental question of "Us vs. Them," which itself really boils down to which group is identified as "Us", making "Them" out of everyone else. This is a problem SF has explored in a thousand different ways, many of them using the proxy of non-human aliens as a stand-in for "Them" that allows all humans, finally, to belong to a single "Us"—something that has never in fact happened.  Here, of course, as in the origin 1968 film, we the audience are presented with a somewhat thornier problem of self-identification, both the obvious complications—sympathetic apes, unsympathetic humans—and some not so obvious.

A large part of the credit for this movie's accomplishments has to go the amazing motion capture work of Andy Serkis, the human actor whose performance, translated into a digital rendition, breathes life into the character of Caesar, the leader of the intelligent apes. From Gollum in The Lord of the Rings to the title character in King Kong to Caesar in Dawn, Serkis has carved out a specialty niche in motion capture. That the character is almost wholly his is certain: the eyes of both man and digital ape are too similar, the subtle facial expressions track too closely for coincidence. And so it is thanks to Serkis that our empathy for Caesar thereby launches us into such important philosophical realms of inquiry.

Where Dawn of the Planet of the Apes examines how one of Them might begin to look like one of Us, and vice-versa,Luc Besson's new film Lucy asks a parallel question: how much can a human be changed, and still remain human—still remain one of Us?

The idea of the Transhuman or Posthuman is nothing new in SF. A common recent theme in a number of stories has been that of Singularity, the hypothetical point in future history when new, transformative advancements in technology happen  at such a rapid pace that the definition of what it is to be Human is itself radically transformed, seemingly instantly. Then there's the merger of flesh and technology that forms the basis of cybernetics, a realm that covers everything from The Six Million Dollar Man to The Matrix.

In Lucy, Besson relies on a familiar trope: the idea that human beings use a mere 10% of their brain capacity, leaving most of the brain unused, a vast realm of unexplored potential. The story, then, posits a miracle drug that allows the user to access 20%, 30% or more, and explores what happens at each new stage of progress to the person who takes it—specifically, the title character Lucy, played by the ever-lovely Scarlett Johanssen.

The biggest problem, of course, is that the premise is total bunk: the idea that human beings leave most of their brain unused, while a very popular misconception, IS in fact a misconception. This is not a fatal flaw; although the entire story flows from this single point, in the final analysis, Lucy is not a technological thriller about brain enhancement, but rather a philosophical piece about the limitations of human perspective. And it's not as if Luc Besson's success as a filmmaker depends on slavish attention to scientific detail; his last big-screen directorial outing in the genre, 1997's The Fifth Element, combined a number of elements of fantasy and space opera. Like The Fifth Element, Lucy waves away these difficulties of scientific accuracy in the interest of the larger questions.

Along the way, Besson uses some unusual (for mainstream cinema, at least) techniques, intercutting between the narrative of the story, and illustrative documentary footage of both animals in the wild and of human activity. There's also some frequent returns to footage of Morgan Freeman as a knowledgeable scientist explaining (in a blatantly expository way) the underlying scientific theories. Most notably, though, an extended finale, entirely reminiscent of the end of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey poses some of the most interesting questions, questions which will undoubtedly leave many filmgoers engaged in deep discussion of What It All Meant.

Many of those questions are inherently unanswerable, as dependent on the perspective of the individual audience member as they are on the details of the movie. What's worth noting—and celebrating—however, is the fact that two of the biggest marquee titles in theaters right now are busily engaged in such worthwhile challenges to our preconceptions regarding the meaning and limitations of existence as a human being.

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