Our celebration of Labor Day has passed and school has resumed, marking the end of summer, but I figure there is time for one more summer movie commentary before settling into the rhythm of fall. I recently saw the film Lucy, starring Scarlett Johansson and Morgan Freeman. The movie begins with Johansson’s character, a hapless woman named Lucy, falling into the hands of a dangerous drug dealer and his thugs. Lucy’s captors surgically implant a bag of highly potent drugs in her stomach cavity while she is unconscious and then coerce her into delivering the package to the United States. While en route, Lucy sustains several blows to the abdomen from another captor, bursting the bag of drugs and releasing them into her body.
Rather than killing her instantly, as the audience would expect, the drug accelerates Lucy’s brain activity, giving her unparalleled cognitive powers. (We later learn that the drug is CPH4, a synthetic version of a hormone produced in small doses by pregnant women that promotes fetal development.) Now possessed of superhuman powers, Lucy escapes from her captors, compels a surgeon to remove the exploded package from her abdomen, visits revenge upon the drug dealer who put her in this situation, and then seeks out Professor Samuel Norman, an eminent brain scientist (played by Morgan Freeman). The remainder of the movie is a race against the clock in which Norman tries to learn whatever he can from Lucy as she continues to gain access to more and more of her mental capabilities and simultaneously approaches her demise, all the while being pursued by Lucy’s former captors.
Despite the film’s intriguing premise and accomplished cast, one takes little away from the viewing experience other than the thought, “Well, that was cool.” At least this was my experience, which prompted me to wonder why distinguished actors like Scarlett Johansson and Morgan Freeman would have signed on for such a film. When it comes to Morgan Freeman in particular, seeing his name on a cast list is typically an assurance that the movie will stir the soul or at least warm the heart. Lucy did neither for me. So, again, why take on this project?
As I said, the best thing this movie has going for it is an intriguing premise: What if we could utilize not just 10% but 20, 50, or even 100% of our brains? (In fact, even this aspect of the movie is off base. Contrary to the commonly cited statistic, human beings do utilize every part of the brain, most of those parts continually over a 24-hour period.) This question is the key to the allure of the film. Every one of us is aware of our imperfection, and every one of us wishes we could be more—more intelligent, more athletic, more beautiful—than we are presently. Appealing to perennial human concerns such as this is what draws us into a film—or any work of art for that matter—most deeply.
Indeed, one would be hard pressed to identify a concern that is more pressing for the average person today… certainly for the average American. Just look at all the things we do in pursuit of perfection: parents fall all over themselves in an educational arms race to get their children into the best colleges, high schools, elementary schools, and even pre-schools in order to give them a competitive edge. The cult of fitness in this country has spawned a 27 billion-dollar industry fueled by people who want to look like the airbrushed bodies they see in magazines. People clamor after the newest iPhone, clothing line, automobile, or vacation destination in pursuit of a purchasable image of perfection. In so doing, we play right into an illusion of perfection fabricated by the marketing complex which, in the words of Kanye West, “made us hate ourselves and love their wealth.”
We all want to be perfect, but seeking perfection in a tighter body or newer gadgets is as misguided as imagining that we can gain complete access to our mental resources by overdosing on drugs. The one is as likely to lead to our destruction as the other, contrary to what the worlds of marketing and entertainment would have us believe. It is one of the hardest-earned nuggets of wisdom that fulfillment comes not through superficial accumulation but rather through internal transformation.
This is a hard lesson to learn because it seems to go counter to everything we know about the world: the fastest runner wins the medal, the most beautiful girls gets the attention, the country with the most and biggest guns calls the shots. The truth of the matter only emerges if we have the patience to take the long view and look below the surface: the fastest runner is never the fastest for long, the beautiful girl often attracts the wrong kind of attention, and the powerful nation state is often corrupted by its power. Eventually most of us learn the hard way that the pursuit of material wealth, physical beauty, and worldly power inevitably fails to attain the perfection we had hoped for. As for what actually leads to perfection, many of us are at a loss.
The answer to this perennial human longing came to us initially, not through human trial and error, but rather through God’s own intervention in the person of Jesus. When Jesus began his ministry, he came—as did many before him and many after him—promising “life to the full” to anyone who followed in his ways (Jn 10:10). He did not merely hold out perfection as a goal; he issued it as a command: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). However, the crucial difference between Jesus and all the rest is that his image of perfection looks like weakness to the world. To the eyes of the world, Jesus was as far from perfection as one could be—originating from an insignificant village, eking out a subsistence living his whole life, dying an ignominious death. He lacked any trace of worldly wealth, glory, or power.
Yet the truth is that wealth and glory and power all fall short of real perfection because none of them can guarantee happiness. There is one thing and one thing alone that can do that—love. It was this truth to which Jesus came to testify in word and deed. The way of love he revealed to us is not grandiose or even always attractive. Rather, it is simple and humble. It is embodied in a gentle smile to a stranger, in picking up a piece of garbage from the street when no one is looking, and in remorse for an uncharitable thought that no one will ever hear. It is, in the words of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, “doing small things with great love.”
If you want to see what human perfection looks like, don’t look to a corporate CEO, a pro athlete, or a character in a Hollywood film. Each and every one of these will let us down in the end. Look instead to Jesus of Nazareth, who gives us an example of what it looks like for a human being to live like God, who lacks no perfection.