It’s June 22, 2015. This would have been Octavia Butler’s 68th birthday. Instead of marking the occasion with my own reflections of Butler, I thought I’d share some of my students’ writings. I came upon a review for Luc Besson’s Lucy (2014) written by a scholar in my Butler’s Daughters class at Spelman College. I shared this young woman’s disappointment at the plastic role of Lucy and the lack of attention to characterization. As a media scholar, I always pay attention to the numbers and noted that the world-wide box office for Lucy was at least 10 times its budget. This would usually mean a sequel, but there is not much left to work up into part deux. Lucy causes me to ask one of the enduring questions of my intellectual life, “why have no Octavia Butler heroines been translated to the silver screen?” Like my student, I think surely Lillith (Xenogenesis Triliogy) or Lauren (Parable of the Sower) with their actual substance and purpose trump Lucy? Perhaps those are questions it will take more than 10% of our brains to answer.
Lucy and Why Female Protagonists Have To Be More Than Female
Lucy (2014) is a sci-fi thriller that features an eponymous female protagonist. The character Lucy is forced into becoming a drug mule by having a bag full of volatile drugs inserted into her body against her will. She is then kidnapped and attacked resulting in that bag opening and seeping into her system. As a result, her brain capacity rapidly increases over a 24 hour period. It should have been one of my favorite movies of the year. Instead, I left the film slightly disappointed.
There were quite a few faults with the movie, including the logic jumps that didn’t always make complete sense, the almost total disregard for the separation of national police forces in Europe or how air-travel works (Lucy never used a passport, which I didn’t understand), the fact that it barely passed the Bechdel test (I didn’t think it was going to make it) and the ridiculous Asian villains.
And then there is the other major problem that the whole “We only use 10% of our brains” thing is a myth but we’re not going to go there.
But what really made me upset about this film was that Lucy was not a real protagonist.
In fact, Lucy doesn’t even really live long before she is reborn as LUCY, a psuedo-human, hyper-intelligent, ever-evolving force that cannot be defeated. And LUCY, though much more intelligent than Lucy, still doesn’t meet the requirements of a protagonist.
To be clear, I define a protagonist as a main character(s) who fights against an antagonist or antagonistic force. Neither Lucy nor LUCY ever do this, though there were plenty of opportunities for that to happen.
The vindictive drug cartel run by the nameless Asians could have been suitable antagonists but they are never any match for LUCY. They are such a laughable foe that it becomes really unbelievable that they don’t just pack up their bags and go home.
The threat of LUCY’S imminent death because of the drugs that incited Lucy’s transformation could have been a suitable antagonist force, but LUCY, being a super-human genius, quickly discovers a remedy to this and proceeds to find no real hinderance to achieving this remedy.
The dilemma of what to do with all of the knowledge LUCY is acquiring could have been a suitable antagonistic force, but Morgan Freeman’s character solves this problem two minutes into their phone conversation in the beginning of the film.
The threat of LUCY losing all of her humanity could have been a suitable antagonistic force and for a while this seemed to be where the plot was going. There are three scenes where LUCY seems to struggle momentarily with her feelings, but each last so briefly that they come across as footnotes to the plot rather than conflict.
Furthermore, any problems LUCY comes across are solved almost immediately after they are proposed. Lucy faces no real conflict, at least not for an extended period of time, because Lucy’s struggle with an antagonist isn’t the driving force of the film. The driving force of the film is the constant question of what is going to happen when LUCY reaches 100% brain capacity. LUCY, then, isn’t a protagonist or even the antagonist.
She’s the problem.
The story cannot be about Lucy’s journey because neither Lucy nor LUCY have a journey. She faces no conflict, she learns no lessons, she has no growth. Lucy seems to be a story that is entirely unconcerned with it’s main character as a character.
Now as far as plot-driven movies go this one keeps you entertained with the multiple national government drug cartel take-down, the crazy Asian drug cartel not even noticing that the girl they fight on multiple occasions has superpowers though she blatantly uses them, and, of course, Morgan Freeman.
But it’s really frustrating because the commercials, the poster, the title, all lead you to believe that this is a science fiction movie with a female protagonist and it’s not. It’s a sort-of-science fiction, more like fantasy because it has no real basis in real science, movie with a female conflict.
The cop in the film begins a hardworking man fighting for the greater good. When he encounters LUCY, he is not quick to accept how out of his depth he is. But by the end, he is much more open to accepting what he doesn’t understand.
Morgan Freeman’s character begins as a brilliant scientist who has spent a lot of his life researching the human brain. When he encounters LUCY, he finds the epitome of all his research and has to decide whether he is really ready for all the knowledge he has been searching for. In the end, he ends up with all the knowledge of the universe in his palm.
The nameless Asian villains begin as drug dealers who are on top of the world with no worries. This changes when LUCY appears and threatens to destroy everything. They pursue LUCY relentlessly, even though she beats them without any effort every time. Each time they face off with her, the stakes are raised, but they never learn from their previous mistakes. This results in their deaths.
Some of the other characters evolve in authentic ways, over time. They are multifaceted. They have character growth. Or they die because of lack of character growth.
Lucy begins the movie a scared young woman and continues to be that until she transforms into LUCY.
LUCY begins the movie as an ever-evolving superhuman force and continues to be that until the movie ends.
The leap between the two is instantaneous. There is no growth. There is no conflict. There is no personhood.
Instead of a character dealing with a problem, they made a character who is a problem to be dealt with. Instead of Lucy they made LUCY.
The one thing I adore about Octavia Butler is that she makes every single one of her characters, and especially her female protagonists, people.
For instance, in “Mind of My Mind” the protagonist is a girl name Mary. Like Lucy, Mary becomes extremely powerful after a painful and nearly sudden transformation. Like Lucy, she has control over people that extends beyond normal humans. But unlike Lucy, Mary faces conflicts and trials, has to deal with how her power affects her humanity, changes and evolves as she the story goes on.
Mary has a journey.
I dislike Mary because she is selfish, vindictive and power-hungry. But I am invested in her as a character because she is more than just a plot twist. Octavia Butler ensures that you are invested.
Butler makes you care.
We have so few female protagonists in popular media that it’s always a major disappointment to see one written so incredibly poorly. Lucy was the only female character of note in her film, was the star of the film, and she STILL wasn’t a real person. It’s not enough for female protagonists to be women. They need to be people.
No matter whether they have supernatural abilities, or live on a spaceship, or aren’t human at all, Octavia Butler ensures that every one of her characters are fully developed and believable. Lucy could learn something from Lauren or Lillith or T’Gatoi in what it means to be a real character.
And the movie industry could learn a thing or two from Butler in how to write one.