Strange Fruit: Thanks to The Tree of Life, We Now Have Lucy


If, like me, you watched Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, you probably came to same conclusion I did: all humans are descended from apes, and before that, from dinosaurs. In order to make this point, Malick films actual dinosaurs frolicking and killing each other. Without these dinosaurs, the moviegoer would never grasp how vexing it can be when your dad (Brad Pitt) is grumpy, like, literally, all the time.

For a while, Hollywood ignored the profound change Malick had wrought. Directors recklessly filmed family sagas, such as August: Osage County, without including any explanatory scenes of dinosaurs at all. Only Luc Besson really got it, and now he’s given us Lucy: a gritty gangster movie that yields, intermittently, to scenes of cheetahs killing antelopes, and scenes of Neanderthals making fire, and scenes of dinosaurs, and lots of other footage that you can buy from National Geographic on eBay.

I’m going to give away the plot of Lucy, because if you’ve seen the trailer, you already know the whole arc. Lucy is kidnapped by gangsters and forced to work as a drug mule; apparently, this is a much better solution than just paying poor people to transport drugs. Here Besson follows the same schema as Taken, in which extremely well-connected, privileged American girls are kidnapped and sold into slavery by Albanian geniuses who do not realize that there are also girls available in Albania.

The gangsters — all “Chinese,” aside from a token Brit — assault Lucy for no particular reason, causing the drug sacs inside her body to leak. The drug makes her superhuman, giving her access to more of her brain than most people, especially Luc Besson, ever use. We know how much of her brain she is using because huge percentages occasionally flash on the screen. This metamorphosis turns Lucy into a gigantic asshole: she belittles her roommate, cyber-stalks a professor, shoots cab drivers, and forces a neurosurgeon to remember the death of his six-year-old son. She is also suddenly aware that Taipei, where she lives, is actually in Taiwan, not in (The People’s) Republic of China.

As Lucy gets smarter and smarter, she develops all kinds of powers. This doesn’t really make sense, since neurons are not made out of magic, but all the science Lucy needs arrives in the form of Morgan Freeman. At one point, during her travels through spacetime, Lucy touches “Lucy,” a link in our evolutionary chain. Later, Lucy gives a USB drive (full of superhuman knowledge and LOLcat pics) to Morgan Freeman, in an essentially parallel scene. This is probably why Freeman gives a speculative lecture about super-intelligence while standing in front of Darwin’s Descent of Man timeline, replacing an ape located a few stops before Cro-Magnon man. He is the obsolete, dark-skinned ape whom Lucy has outgrown.

It’s impossible to capture, in mere words, the depth of this film’s racism. In one scene, Lucy stands before Native Americans; they pull up short, bemused by her obvious superiority. She reaches them by traveling so far back in time that there is no civilization at all, only tribes of indigeneous people. These savages eked out a nomadic existence, always on the lookout for natural history museums, and taking shelter in large, chronological dioramas (cf. Jim Carrey’s description of life in Canada, which I’ve linked below). Lucy rewinds time in Paris, which is apparently built on land that once belonged to the Sioux.

Evolution is like gravity. It’s not just a good idea; it’s the law. It’s plain silly to think we need movies like Lucy to champion it, and it’s a bad idea to confuse prehistory with prejudice.