Sunday, July 27, 2014

Luc Besson's "Lucy" - Girl Gone Transhuman

Avast, there be spoilers here!

How often does an actor, other than Morgan Freeman, get an opportunity to play God twice in one year? In the new sci-fi action-thriller “Lucy,” Scarlett Johansson takes another at bat at being a near deity. Her first try was as an OS, an artificial intelligence who was the disembodied paramore of Joaquin Phoenix in the movie “Her” released last fall. This time around the fully-bodied Johansson (thank God for that) plays the Lucy of the film’s title.

When we first meet her, Lucy is a party-girl living an apparently carefree life in Taiwan. That is until her low-life boyfriend handcuffs her to a briefcase loaded with a new recreational superdrug CPH4 and, without her knowledge, dispatches her into the lions’ den of a murderous, transnational Korean nacro-gang headed by Mr. Jang (Min-sik Choi). Mr. Jang, it turns out, has designs on Lucy’s body, not in the usual way, but as a covert system to deliver CPH4 to one of a number of far-flung distribution points on the globe.

Not surprisingly, things don't go as either Mr. Jang or Lucy expect, and soon CPH4 leaking into Lucy’s abdominal cavity begins to work its chemical magic on her brain. After crawling around on the ceiling in a frenzy in a scene reminiscent of the “Exorcist,” the recently frightened, whimpering Lucy calms down considerably and, realizing that her survival depends on her recovering the rest of Mr. Jang’s CPH4, sets out on a bloody journey that includes sticking it to Mr. Jang in more ways than one.

This all could be a nice premise for a well-conceived science-fiction action-thriller, which “Lucy” is not. Instead, the writer-director Luc Besson imbeds this good idea in a lot of sciencey drivel and tries to anchor Lucy’s transformation from human to more-than-human in a relationship that develops between her and researcher and neuroscience god, Professor Samuel Norman (Morgan Freeman, who has played more incarnations of God than anyone since Vishnu).

We are introduced to Professor Norman when he stands before a rapt assembly of neuroscientists lecturing them about the factoid that humans are at the pinnacle of biological evolution, since they alone have been able to tap into as much as 10% of their mental capacity.  (The percent-of-our-brains trope is put to much better use in Albert Brooks’ “Defending Your Life.”) Not content with sharing just that piece of misinformation, Norman goes on to ponder the wondrous (and impossible) things that may come when we progress as a species to using a larger and larger fraction of the neurons we have squirming around in our noggins.

It’s hard to say what’s more disturbing in these scenes, the continued propagation of this silly and unfounded 10% myth about the human brain, or the repeated cuts to Professor Norman’s slavish audience, hanging on his every word as though they were his winged-monkey minion waiting for a command to do his bidding.

My gripe here is not with suspension of disbelief. As I've discussed in another blog post, all sorts of silly ideas can be employed effectively as premises to set science-fiction stories into motion. But, like good supporting actors, these counterfactual elements should introduce themselves early in the performance and then step out of the limelight to give the principal performers plenty of room. Instead, in “Lucy” the percent-of-our-brains canard insists on hanging around near center stage. We get hit over the head with it time and time again as Mr. Besson reminds us exactly where Lucy is in her brain-fraction progression, ticking off the percentages like some sort of thermometer in a public television fundraising drive.

What’s missing in all this is the dramatic tension that, by all rights, should be at the core of this story and that is how Lucy’s headlong rush toward mental perfection necessitates the withering away of her emotional self. And, by all rights, Lucy’s anchor in the world of human affairs, should not have been the distant and avuncular Professor Norman, but her flesh-and-blood (and sexy) companion, Pierre Del Rio (Amr Waked), the French police inspector, who initially reluctantly takes up her cause and eventually becomes her committed friend and ally.

The connection between Lucy and Del Rio is suggested when she explains with a kiss why she is keeping him as a companion, even though she has grown so powerful that she doesn't need his help anymore. But, sadly, this relationship is hardly developed, in spite of what appears to be a serviceable chemistry between Johansson and Waked. The result is that a taut and suspenseful film featuring these two characters at its center is saddled with a subplot that, from what I can tell, only serves to bring Morgan Freeman into the picture to underwrite its box-office success.

More disappointing, though, is how poorly Scarlett Johansson is utilized in the title role. Her transition from human to beyond-human happens far too quickly. A brief phone call with her mother early on serves as a requiem for the life that Lucy is leaving behind as she is impelled, like it or not, toward transcendence. What should have been a wrenching and soul-searching second act of the movie is relegated to little more than one scene. And, although Johansson uses the limited time to good effect, it offers her short shrift as far as real acting goes.

So, after a well-executed turn as a helpless and frightened young woman at the beginning of the movie, Johansson must take on the mien of the soulless automaton that Lucy is fated to become. Aloof, with wide eyes and fixed gaze, she marches zombie-like through the remainder of the film toward Lucy's inevitable godhead. There’s not much acting for Johansson to do here.

How this lapse in attention to his main character may have come about is suggested by the “meaning of life” revelation that Lucy delivers just before her apotheosis. As she travels to the distant past and masters the progression time, moving people backward and forward in Times Square at whim, Lucy comes to the realization that time itself is the central element of our reality, whatever that might mean.

Although the movie informs us that its title “Lucy” refers to an ancestor of ours that lived in Africa’s Afar Triangle some 3 million years ago, it also bears resemblance to the director's own name, Luc. Perhaps Besson is reminding us of the power that he has as a writer-director in manipulating the way a film unfolds, rapidly moving his characters backward and forward in time with God-like ease. That’s all well and good, but he should remember that it’s nice to slow down and get to know them better in all the commotion.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Bet that Financed Atlanta's BeltLine Pedestrian-Bicycle Transit Loop

View of construction from the Atlanta BeltLine Eastside Trail (Marc Merlin)
Although Atlanta's BeltLine, a pedestrian-bicycle-transit loop circling Georgia's largest city, was a vision described by Ryan Gravel in his master's thesis while a student in architecture at Georgia Tech in 1999, what made it a reality a dozen years later was some visionary creative financing.

Where to find the money? There was no way on Earth that the City of Atlanta would be able to come up with the billions - yes, billions - of dollars that it would take to make the BeltLine happen. And there was no way in Hell that the State of Georgia - which had never deigned to give Atlanta's struggling transit system MARTA a dime - was going to pitch in to help out.

The solution, called a Tax Allocation District or TAD, involved placing a bet on the BeltLine's success.

The property around the proposed BeltLine route was not being put to much use - which is part of what made Gravel's idea feasible in the first place - and, as a consequence, was not generating much tax revenue. Yet, school systems, among others, had claim to the meager taxes that were being collected.

If the BeltLine turned out to be successful, the property values in its vicinity would increase significantly. No one had claim to the corresponding increase in property tax revenue, at least not yet. The TAD was a way for the BeltLine to stake that claim.

Since the way school systems are funded was implicated in this kind of financing scheme, there were legal hurdles that had to be jumped. It was decided that TADs required an amendment to Georgia's constitution, which in turn required the approval of its citizens in a statewide referendum. TAD supporters were mobilized and the amendment passed, although not by very much.

All it takes is a walk along the Eastside BeltLine Trail today to witness the amount of renovation and new construction completed or in progress to see how handsomely the TAD wager has paid off. The TAD wager also stands as a reminder that all sorts of creativity have to be brought to bear to make visions for large-scale public projects like the BeltLine a reality.

Monday, May 26, 2014

The TV Tower that Saved Atlanta's Freedom Park

This bit of Atlanta history is a departure from my usual blog posts about movies, politics or science.

Building at the base of the WSB-TV Tower (Marc Merlin)
Ever wonder what's at the base of the broadcast tower that looms over Freedom Parkway near the Carter Center? Well wonder no more.

Many Atlanta residents who arrived here in the last twenty years or so may not be aware of the critical role that the WSB-TV Tower played in keeping a stretch of interstate highway from taking over the land that The Path and Freedom Park occupy today.

Original plans had called for the complex that includes the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum and the Carter Center (completed in 1986) to connect with the rest of Atlanta by an interstate spur, in part elevated, which was to run to the downtown connector in one direction and to Ponce de Leon Avenue near its intersection with Clifton Road in the other.

WSB TV tower with guy wires (Marc Merlin)
Opposition to the project was fierce - the powers that be wanted to put a freeway through a white neighborhood for a change - but supporters of the Ex-Pres-way, as it came to be called, included both President Carter and his one-time UN-ambassador, Andrew Young, who had served a term as mayor of Atlanta after leaving the Carter administration and was a force in local politics to be reckoned with. After several years of protests and legal challenges, the tide seemed to be turning in favor of the interstate proponents.

Then it occurred to some clever adversary that the guy wires from the WSB-TV broadcast tower would cross over the proposed roadway and that any ice falling from them as a result of winter storms would pose a hazard to the traffic passing below. Addressing this problem frustrated progress on the interstate plan, adding another considerable delay.

By the early 1990s most of the legal obstacles to the original project had been cleared, but its backers realized that time was running short if the city was to be fully prepared to handle the crowds expected for the 1996 Olympic Games. So, believing that any sort of road was better than none, they relented and agreed to an alternate plan, the shorter, street-grade parkway that, along with The Path and Freedom Park, we use and enjoy today.

The seemingly pointless tunnel that bestrides the parkway just south of the Carter Center stands as a reminder of this, the best-known of Atlanta's "freeway revolts," and as an ever-present defender against winter ice falling from the guy wires of the WSB-TV Tower above.