Lucy, The Core, and scientific accuracy in films

Feature Ryan Lambie 21 Aug 2014 - 06:54

Luc Besson’s Lucy may be based on a debunked myth, but does bad science in films matter if the story’s well-told, Ryan asks...

The myth that we only use 10 percent of our brain power appears to date back to the late 19th century. Conclusions by one pair of psychologists at Harvard - who were studying the potential intelligence of child prodigies versus adults - were misapplied and misquoted in the 1920s and 30s, and have lingered in pop culture ever since.

Luc Besson’s new film Lucy is the latest to base its story on the myth, with Scarlett Johansson starring as an ordinary American woman who’s pressed into service as a drug mule by an evil crime boss. When a bag full of an experimental substance leaks in Lucy’s stomach, she’s transformed from a weepy average 20-something into a turbo-charged, super-brained superheroine, first gunning down bad guys without blinking (in classic Besson style) before a set of telekinetic abilities kick in which negate the need for physical weapons entirely.

Much of the film, then, is so much comic book wish fulfilment - a mix of blazing guns, hapless goons in bad suits to serve as target practice, and lots of pseudo-scientific twaddle courtesy of Morgan Freeman, an actor who now seems to specialise in lending a sense of dramatic weight to outlandish or daft genre concepts.

For a film costing just $40m - something like a third of the budget of most Hollywood summer action flicks - Lucy’s fared remarkably well, with a $17m US opening weekend putting it at the number one spot in place of the much more expensive Hercules. Box Office Mojo currently puts Lucy’s worldwide total at just over $168m - no mean feat for an R-rated film in a crowded season.

Some would-be viewers,however, have taken issue with Lucy’s premise. “This film” wrote one commenter on Den Of Geek’s Facebook page, “falls into the  category of ‘the central premise is so idiotic I don't want to go see it,’ along with the Purge movies.”

Even Luc Besson admits that the 10 percent brain power premise in Lucy’s pure myth. “What's true, though, is that we only use 15% of our neurons at the same time,” he told the Guardian. “But it's never the same 15%. So we can ask ourselves, what happens to us if we can suddenly have 30%, 40%, 50% of our neurons working at the same time? I changed the reality a little to help the story.” 

All of this begs one question: does it matter whether the premise in a sci-fi action thriller like Lucy is convincing or not? In many ways, Lucy’s premise is little different from a 1950s B-movie such as Them! or Tarantula, where the power of the atom turns ordinary creatures into colossal monstrosities. The idea of radiation as a creator of mutants with extraordinary powers made its way into comic books, and still survives in modern multiplexes.

When Peter Parker was bitten by a genetically-modified spider - thus giving him archnid-like super powers - in 2012‘s The Amazing Spider-Man, few critics devoted segments of their reviews to how ridiculous the premise was. This was for a good reason, perhaps: Spider-Man’s origin story is now entrenched in our culture, along with the origin stories of any other comic book character.

What matters most, perhaps, is not whether the science in a movie holds real water when we scrutinise it after the fact, but whether we can suspend our disbelief when the lights are down. This is where the combined skills of a film’s writer, director and actors come into play. Like 2011‘s Limitless, which has a not dissimilar concept, Lucy has a light, self-aware tone for the most part, before Besson takes his story down a weird transcendental route that’s half Akira, half 2001: A Space Odyssey. In many ways, Lucy might have been served better had it sustained its unabashedly daft air to the very end.

Sometimes, however, a knock-about, B-movie tone can work against our suspension of disbelief. The Core, a sci-fi disaster adventure film released in 2003, saw a group of scientists and space pilots take the helm of a high-tech drilling machine and burrow down to the centre of the Earth in an attempt to get the core spinning again. Shot and acted in the vein of Michael Bay’s Armageddon (although without quite the same teacup-rattling bombast), The Core was embraced by some - such as the late Roger Ebert - as a fun night out at the pictures, and derided by others for its highly questionable scientific grounding. 

One of those in the latter camp was Ain’t It Cool reviewer Darth Siskel (not his real name, we’re guessing, but you never know), who poured scorn on The Core’s premise and its characters’ plan to save humanity. A day later, The Core’s screenwriter, John Rogers, responded with a sternly-worded response, arguing that his story was far more grounded than Siskel’s review had implied.

To Ain’t It Cool’s credit, Rogers’ highly-entertaining letter was published in full. Here’s an excerpt:

A five minute trip to any online encyclopedia source (either MSN Encarta or the Britannica service) would let you know that the model of the Earth's Core I used for the movie is correct. The Core does indeed spin, slightly faster than the Earth itself. The EM Field is produced by the Core, and when the direction of the flow reverses the poles shift. The Earth is built for that sort of process, that's why when the Core flow stops (I used "altered" in the script, but it was too vague for the suits) the Earth doesn't tear apart immediately and/or the EM Field doesn't just collapse, as Darth Siskel assumed would happen in his review. All the facts, temperatures, and pressures for the layers of the Earth are to the best known value.

Rogers goes on to colourfully insist that certain other scientific devices and plot developments in The Core were carefully researched, and that he’d additionally spent three years convincing Hollywood executives not to tinker with his story (they’d wanted dinosaurs and explorers going for space walks in hot magma). “The ridicule is all based on the assumption that the science is crap,” Rogers wrote. “That assumption is unfounded.”

Unfortunately, The Core’s tone tends to work against all that scientific rigour. Whether it was supposed to or not, the film looks and sounds like a genre flick from the 1950s or 60s, with variable effects (a shuttle lands in a Los Angeles storm drain, pigeons hurl themselves at Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square) and amusing stock characters, such as Stanley Tucci’s preening celebrity scientist or Delroy Lindo's eccentic, desert-dwelling inventor.

Had director Jon Amiel adopted a more cerebral atmosphere - more akin to, say, Deep Impact than Armageddon - The Core’s harsher critics may have been less scornful of its scientific grounding. 

It could even be argued that the quality of a film’s writing and execution is more important than the science in the storytelling itself. Sure, there are entire websites designed to point out the scientific flaws in entertainment, and some actors have even got in on the act - former coffee scientist turned actor Dustin Hoffman started the Science and Entertainment Exchange lobby group in 2009. But for most of us, who simply want to be swept away by a film rather than analyse its factual accuracy in the moment, it’s the quality of the story that truly counts. Great storytelling is the difference between Alien and Inseminoid, or E.T. and Mac And Me, or The Quatermass Experiment and Species.

Even films as exhaustively researched as 2001: A Space Odyssey contain scientific and factual inaccuracies, and in the wake of Gravity, some quarters of the internet rushed to point out its errors. Yet both films are, for the most part, rightly praised for their artistry and hypnotic power.

Creating a great movie requires the delicate balance of great writing, acting, music-making, direction and design, and the process is far from an exact science. Inaccuracies or flaws in a plot can sometimes affect our suspension of disblief, but scientific accuracy forms only a tiny percentage of what makes a classic piece of cinema.

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