Lucy, EuropaCorp, 2014;
Altered States, Warner Brothers, 1980;
& 2001: A Space Odyssey, MGM, 1968

...the Overmind is trying to grow, to extend its powers and its awareness of the universe. By now it must be the sum of many races, and long ago it left the tyranny of matter behind. It is conscious of intelligence, everywhere.

Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood's End [Ballantine Books, 1953, 1964, p.181]

The three movies under review here are from very different eras in film making, but they all share the theme of the origin and/or the goal of human evolution and the meaning of human life. 2001: A Space Odyssey and Altered States are both classics. It is not clear that the most recent movie, Lucy, will measure up to their standard; but it is hard not to be reminded of their themes, and to consider new questions, after viewing it.

2001: A Space Odyssey was a groundbreaking movie given its serious tone and majestic presentation, which were both unusual for science fiction movies. This was done intentionally by director Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999), who wanted to elevate the genre from the Flash Gordon overtones that clung to it. He wrote the screenplay with one of the greats of science fiction, Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008). Clarke wrote up the screenplay into a novel [Signet, 1968]. This was helpful, since no one understood what the ending of the movie was supposed to mean.

Indeed, the movie was spare on dialogue -- or exposition; a plus, since that is the bane of science fiction movies -- which is mostly, along with the actors, not memorable. The lines that get repeated from the movie are by the on-board computer, the HAL 9000, which kills off most of the crew and must be defeated by the remaining astronaut, David Bowman (played by Keir Dullea), who disables its higher cognitive functions. Thus, we remember HAL saying, "I know I've made some very poor decisions recently..." HAL ends up with more personality than anyone else in the movie.

These sorts of details are incidental to the project in the movie, which is to pursue the clues from a strange black monolith that was found on the Moon and then beamed a signal to Jupiter, where Bowman's spaceship is headed. We know from earlier in the movie that the monolith seems to be associated with important moments in evolution, as when apemen learn to use tools to kill each other.

Back in the 1970's, there was just such a monolith that was erected at the University of Hawai'i outside the physics department. And it hummed. I never learned who had paid for this, but it was a nice touch. During the Arab oil boycott in 1973, it stopped humming. Probably to save energy. Although I have been back to the University several times, I haven't thought to check if the monolith is still there. Or if it is humming again.

Now I see that it is still there, because there is a University web page about it:

UH Mānoa’s monolith titled “Krypton” was built in 1973 in front of Watanabe Hall. The brass/bronze sculpture by Bruce Hopper is about the same size and dimensions as the one made famous in 2001: A Space Odyssey. It has served as a symbol of inspiration on the Mānoa campus.

In itself, the device of the monolith, a Hitchcockian "MacGuffin," is a curious conceit, since the implication is that evolution does not proceed by natural selection, but by some sort of alien technological or divine intervention -- we don't know which. Such a curious, I might even say anti-Darwinian, feature of the story is shared by Lucy and by another story by Arthur C. Clarke, which I have considered elsewhere, Childhood's End.

The ending of the movie features a succession of obscure scenes and images, culminating in a baby floating in space above the Earth. Much of the interest in the movie at the time was the light show constituted by these images, which were typically viewed in a state of marijuana intoxication. Personally, I did not see 2001 until a couple of years after it was released, when I went to a double feature of the movie with Woody Allen's Take the Money and Run [1969] at the Reseda Theatre (18443 Sherman Way, just a block east of Reseda Blvd). The theater was later featured in the background at the beginning of the movie Boogie Nights [1997], when it actually had already been closed for many years. After the showing of the Woody Allen movie, an usher pleaded with the audience that smoking was not allowed in the theater, by State law. In the event, he was ignored, and clouds of illegal smoke drifted up toward the end of 2001.

One must read Clarke's book to know what the end of the movie is all about. Dave Bowman has taken on a different form of existence, in which he can assume any shape and travel space and time at will. This sounds a bit like what may have happened to all the inhabitants of Earth in Childhood's End. Not only does that share the strange notion that future evolution will not be the product of natural selection, but we might also detect on Clarke's part an impatience with the forms and limitations of physical existence. Dave seems to have become omnipotent. This is a vision we might regard as more of a religious than a scientific aspiration, and one that is impatient with the physical body.

The search for meaning and purpose go in a different direction in Altered States. This was based on a book [HarperCollins, 1978] by Paddy Chayefsky (1923–1981). In the production, there was some sort of dispute between Chayefsky and director Ken Russell (1927-2011), to the point where Chayefsky removed his name from the project, with his screenplay attributed to "Sidney Aaron" in the credits (Chayefsky's actual first and middle names). It is still hard to recover what the problem was, and in fact Chayefsky has nothing to be ashamed of in the final product, which is marvelous, as was appreciated in many reviews at the time. Almost all the dialogue is right out of the book, and the adaptation is far more faithful to the book than most of these sorts of Hollywood movies (such as the fiasco adaptations of Dune [1984] and John Carter [2012]). If Russell altered Chayefksy's script, it is hard to see where this happened; and some minor changes from the book to the movie are actually improvements -- e.g. Jessup's wife Emily (Blair Brown) occurs in his hallucinations in the movie but not the book, and he doesn't tell her that he loves her until the very end of the movie, with maximum dramatic effect. Since Jessup's relationship to Emily is the key to the whole business, this is better.

The cast of the movie is memorable in itself, with William Hurt (1950-2022) -- in his first movie -- Blair Brown, (a choleric) Charles Haid, Bob Balaban, and even a small Drew Barrymore. Like 2001, Altered States is significant for its images, which vividly reproduce hallucinations, including a fair amount of nudity. Indeed, when I saw the movie in Los Angeles shortly after its opening, there was more nudity than was featured when I saw it again in Texas shortly thereafter, or in any cut of the movie since, even on DVD. Thus, not only did we get a "full Monty" from Bill Hurt, but Blair Brown supplied quite enough for any Playboy feature. Even now, plenty of Brown remains (except when the movie has been shown on boadcast television), but some of the more vivid poses, with her shapely καλλίπυγος posterior, are missing. I for one, however, shall not forget. Eat your heart out, Kim Kardashian. This nudity itself is consistent with the book, where Jessup, looking at Emily, is "admiring her gracile, shameless nakedness" [p.173]. We should at least be able to do the same.

There are also some sly jokes in the movie. The radiologist is "Dr. Wissenschaft," which is "Dr. Science" in German -- and there is a "Wissenschaft" in the book, he is just not the radiologist. We find Hurt, as Dr. Jessup, sleeping with one of his (graduate?) students, who nevertheless addresses him as "Dr. Jessup." Chayefsky seems to have known his academia. In the book, we learn that the student is "one of [Mason] Parrish's [i.e. Charles Haid's] seraglio of second-year medical students" [p.73]. In fact, she addresses Jessup as "Eddie" [p.74] and not "Dr. Jessup." So the movie adds a nice mischievous touch, and I would like to know if the change came from Chayefsky, Russell, or someone else in the production. Since Parrish's "seraglio" gets left out of the movie, its overtones are retained by the alteration in the form of address of the student. From "Dr. Jessup" alone we efficiently learn the nature of their relationship.

The dialogue can be overblown -- although straight out of the book -- but the basic idea in the movie is that Jessup experiments with sensory deprivation, then with sensory deprivation aided by a hallucinogenic, and then with this process returning Jessup to the beginning of life, to the "first soul [alma]," as he had been promised by the Mexican Indians from whom he obtained the hallucinogen. This comes to involve his frightening physical transformation into an apeman, in which state he runs around whacking animals and people with a club, just like the apemen in 2001. The presence of an apeman in all three of the movies under review here is a key point of comparison.

Eventually, Jessup's trips do return him to the origin of life, which threatens to dissolve his actual physical existence altogether in pure energy and nothingness [p.176]. Also, he discovers that the origin of life is not a revelation of any great truths, but a moment of terror and pain. He is lost in it until Emily as a radiant nude Madonna, uses her love to pull him back to the present. Love not only saves, but secures, all.

Such an ending is actually the opposite of what we see in both 2001 and Lucy, where mere human life, and things like love, have been transcended. Altered States thus holds the closest to a secular humanist ideology, with nothing particularly religious or contrary to Darwinism involved. This is both its strength and its weakness, since the other movies seem dehumanizing, while Altered States implies that no meaning is necessary beyond good interpersonal relationships. With Paddy Chayefsky only a year away from his own death, we might have hoped that, like Socrates, he could have seen more than other mortals [note].

Lucy, like Altered States, is a quest mediated by a drug. Like 2001, however, its goal is of a more future, religious, and paranormal character [note].

The luminous Scarlett Johansson, unfortunately without any nudity in our confused libertine/conservative times, is drawn, by a low-life boyfriend, into a criminal enterprise. She is involuntarily made a drug mule, with a new superdrug, based on some kind of fetal development enzyme, surgically placed in her abdomen. The criminals, however, being fools, are suddenly more interested in sex than they are in fulfilling their criminal agenda. When Johansson fends off their advances, she is kicked in frustration, which of course ruptures the packet of drugs in her abdomen.

The drug sets off a transformation. We learn of its possible course and consequences from a lecture delivered, in an unrelated plotline, by Morgan Freeman in Paris. In his best Science Channel delivery, we learn from Freeman that we only use 10% of our brains, and that if we could use more, all sort of remarkable and even astonishing abilities would emerge.

Unfortunately, this is a high order of silly pseudo-science, but perhaps we can swallow it under the rubrick of poetic license. However, despite the movie being a commercial success, critics were so hard on it for the scientific nonsense, that people have come to think less of it. This is not very consistent with the fate of movies with similar problems, like The Matrix, which is rarely taken to task. I detailed such problems elsewhere in "Science Errors in Science Fiction."

Despite all the references to Darwin and Evolution in the movie, the whole idea is deeply anti-Darwinian (as we also see in references to evolution in The Matrix). The abilities that emerge from the greater use of the cognitive functions of our brain have nothing to do with natural selection. If that had been the case, we would have them, or have had them, already. Instead, the inability of Freeman to predict what the higher abilities will even be means that they have never been manifest before; but in Darwinian terms, that's impossible. Natural selection works on, and then produces, functions that are in use. Othewise, they cannot be "selected" by the environment in which they occur.

Be that as it may, Johannson begins to control all the functions of her own body, to remember all her memories, even from infancy, and then to control physical objects outside of her. This makes for much of the fun of the movie, as the bad guys are unable to harm her and she steadily approaches omnipotence and omniscience. We even get a car chase, although we might wonder why she cannot make the car fly through the air, when in short order she demonstrates her ability to do that sort of thing. I know -- Picky, picky.

She is racing against the drug-induced development of her mind, which she knows will keep her in ordinary human form for only about 24 hours. But, for some reason, she needs more of the drug to complete the transformation. So she is in a race from Taipei to Paris to intercept the drugs carried by the other mules. This is not a particularly coherent feature of the movie. The original gangsters, in Taipei, are Koreans, which raises the question why the Taiwanese authorities and, in particular, Taiwanese gangsters would tolerate a bunch of Koreans murdering people in the lobbies of hotels in Taipei and kidnapping people off the streets. This would tend to be noticed. At the same time, Johannson's "Lucy" confronts the Korean crime boss but then fails to kill him, as he richly deserves, and which it is fully in her own power to do. Since she doesn't, all sorts of inconveniences and mayhem arise, which are thus entirely gratuitous. If she's so smart, this could have been avoided. But then we wouldn't have the car chase.

Finally, she is in Morgan Freeman's lab, launched by the remaining drugs towards 100% cognitive ability. Like Dave Bowman in 2001, her form becomes fluid and she begins to roam space and time. We go from Paris to Times Square, and then back in time, meeting pre-Columbian Indians anachronistically on horseback (where horses were only introduced in the New World by the Spaniards). Going back further, she finally meets the original "Lucy," i.e. the Australopithecine (apeman/woman) discovered in the Afar Depression of Ethiopia in 1974. Unfortunately, the movie seems to confuse Lucy with "Eve," the female from whom all modern mitochondrial DNA is derived, the "mother of us all," who is hypothesized to have lived in Africa up to 200,000 years ago. Another case for poetic license.

Johannson meets "Lucy/Eve" in a 2001 moment; and when she touches her, perhaps we are meant to understand that, like the black monolith, this spark will set "Lucy" on the proper path of human evolution. Otherwise, what's the point? Returned to the present, the Koream crime boss is about about to put a bullet in Johannson's head, but she disappears. Aftewards, the French policeman who has killed the Korean (was all this necessary?) receives a text message from Johannson, "I am everywhere."

So Johannson's Lucy, having sparked human evolution in the original "Lucy," has now become omnipresent as well as omnipotent and omniscient. In other words, she has become God. Not bad for a day's work.

Meanwhile, however, Johannson has recognized that she is losing her humanity. She tells Morgan Freeman that she no longer feels pain, fear, etc., "All things that make us human are fading away." She kisses the French policeman just to remind herself that there is such a thing, even as Johannson has been playing her character with decreasing affect, as though she is ultimately becoming a machine.

This dehumanizing is something we also see in Childhood's End, although in 2001 it is not clear from the point of view if Dave Bowman retains his human emotions and sensibilities or not. Thus, the ultimate lesson of Altered States, which we might even say is similar to that of the play Heracles by Euripides, is explicitly precluded by Lucy, and probably by 2001 also, if Childhood's End is a clue. We are also left with the impression if all humans could only use 100% of their brains, then all humanity would go the way of the Earth in Childhood's End.

Thus, each of these movies in isolation is unsatisfying in terms of human meaning, with 2001 and Lucy leaving out humanity and Altered States rejecting a quest for a larger meaning or purpose to human life, in order for William Hurt to retain his humanity. In accepting the larger quest, 2001 and Lucy cannot express the goal and the process without confusion about how Darwinian evolution works. They commit the fallacy of "orthogenesis," which is the notion that Evolution merely reveals the correct and proper forms of future organisms, which are already prepared from the infinite past to be brought into existence. This would require a rather strong Platonism, where the true forms of all creatures have existed from eternity in the World of Being. Few scientists would be happy with such an implication.

On the other hand, the results of Evolution are not merely random, although there is, to be sure, a random element. All Evolution produces a decline in entropy, i.e. less disorder, and the course of Evolution over millions of years arguably produces forms with increasingly lower entropy. This means that order increases in living forms, both in general and specifically.

Human life, and all the bewildering variety of its products, therefore is at a higher level of order, a higher plateau of "emergent" order, than all previous life. 2001, Lucy, and Childhood's End are all fumbling towards some such assertion, even while they have no idea how to express what this would mean or how it would work.
Scarlett Johansson and Keira Knightley (cropped), from the cover of Vanity Fair, March 2006
As I have considered elsewhere, the mystery of order does require some form of Platonism, in which, in the long run, Evolution may not always produce human beings, but it will produce rational beings, perhaps with the same necessity that hydrogen and oxygen produce water.

There is no reason, at the same time, why rational beings should not continue to love and care and inhabit physical bodies. If William Hurt had just loved enough, pehaps he could have pulled the finite form of Scarlett Johannson out of "everywhere." I wouldn't mind seeing that, especially if she came back naked.

Childhood's End, the Mystery of Order

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Copyright (c) 2014, 2020, 2021, 2022, 2023 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved

Lucy, EuropaCorp, 2014; note 2

Lucy is written and directed by Luc Besson, who co-wrote the screenplay for Taken. He also directed the goofy romp The Fifth Element [1997], with Bruce Willis in one of his delightful and eccentric science fiction roles.

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Altered States, Warner Brothers, 1980; note 1

Chayefky's long list of Acknowledgments in the book for scientific and medical advice [pp.183-184] does not include any sources on Buddhism, which is not surprising, since the references to Buddhism in the book misrepresent basic features of Buddhist docrine. A telling passage comes early:

Sitting naked [here we go again] in her room while she stood naked behind an ironing board, he would tell her about Buddhism, at least about the perfunctory [!] reading he had done in it. He was excited by Buddhism. For a godless man who had a compulsion for ultimacy, there was nothing like it. It is putatively [!] a religion, he informed her, but there is very little divinity to it. There is no god, resurrected or not. It is the Self that contains immortality and ultimate truth. Man is the maker and master of his own fate. As man evolved biologically from the cells of the sea, so he evolves psychically to the ultimate Enlightenment, where he joins in Union with the Final and Original Consciousness. One achieves Enlightenment through yogic practices. Because Buddhism apotheosizes the Mind and Consciousness of man, yoga has to be considered a psychology, a purer psychology, in fact, than that found in the West. [p.19]

Neither Jessup nor Chayefsky seem to have noticed that a foundational Buddhist doctrine is "No Self," Anātman, अनात्मन्. Since there is no Self, it can contain neither immortality nor ultimate truth. And immortality is the not the goal of Buddhist practice, anyway, which is to avoid rebirth. "Man" is not the "maker and master of his own fate," since what happens to you may be determined by your karma, which you can only change with pious and meritorious practices, an ethical dimension that is missing from Jessup's whole conception of his project. "His own fate" is thus the result of his own merit.

As for there being "little divinity" in Buddhism, it is otherwise hard to know what to make of the Buddha as the "Blessed One" or of the many other Buddhas and Bodhisattvas of general Buddhist belief. There is, indeed, no God, but this is for many of the same reasons why there is no Self, which is not going to help Jessup much. And there are gods, like Brahma and Indra, all over Buddhism.

"Yoga," योग, is not a term that we see much in Buddhism. There are the Yogacara and Hua-yen, 華嚴, Schools, which are "Mind Only" doctrines that could be interpreted in terms close to Jessup's take on it. There is intense debate in Buddhist scholarship, however, how seriously this was taken as metaphysics, especially as it would come into conflict with the "No Self" principle that is doubted by no Buddhists. In so far as Zen can reflect Yogacara principles, it is possible that Chayefsky picked up this whole business from popular Zen talk.

All this, of course, is unnecessary, since Consciousness as the ultimate reality is a Four-Square truth of Vedânta, and for yoga all one needs is the actual Yoga School. All of Jessup's Buddhism talk is confused and irrelevant -- although pure Consciousness in either doctrine is not terror and pain, as Jessup discovers, but Bliss (ânanda).

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