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Limitless Review: Stylish, Inventive and Wildly Entertaining

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Ren Zelen itcherWith the emergence of the serial show ‘Limitless’, featuring guest appearances by Bradley Cooper replicating the role he made famous in the movie, it may be time to reappraise what made the original film so entertaining and intriguing. ~ Ren Zelen

‘Limitless’ (2011)

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Director: Neil Burger
Writer: Leslie Dixon (screenplay), Alan Glynn (novel)
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Abbie Cornish, Robert De Niro, Anna Friel, Andrew Howard, Johnny Whitworth

Wouldn’t it be great if we could just take a little pill and become super-intelligent, ultra-motivated and highly productive? If we could remember everything we ever saw, access all the information we’ve ever gleaned and be able to assess everything around us at lightning speed? It seems like a great scenario, doesn’t it? This is the premise set out in ‘Limitless’ – a 2011 science fiction thriller based on the novel ‘The Dark Fields’ by Alan Glynn and directed by Neil Burger. I’ll take a look at how this particular scenario is handled in my ‘Limitless’ movie review (for more movies like ‘Limitless’ click here).

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Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) is a failed writer living in a grubby apartment in a seedy part of New York. His mind is frozen with writer’s block and he can’t even motivate himself to start on a novel which is now overdue. He can’t pay his rent and his long-suffering girlfriend, Lindy (Abbie Cornish), finally reaches her wit’s end and breaks up with him. It looks like his life is sliding into inexorable failure.

At his lowest point, Eddie accidentally runs into his ex-brother-in-law, Vernon (Johnny Whitworth), a slick hustler. Vernon takes him out for a drink for old time’s sake and, noting his shabby state, slides over a free sample of a new drug called NZT. Vernon says it’s been tested and approved, but Eddie, rightly dubious, initially refuses to try it. Later, deciding that things could hardly get worse, he takes a chance and swallows the little clear pill.

A Superman for the Information Age

This particular pharmaceutical mix apparently allows Eddie to access 100 percent of his brain. He experiences his entire mental capacity kicking into technicolour action – his predicament becomes incredibly transparent and comprehensible.

With these enhanced mental abilities, Eddie quickly finds the inspiration to finish writing his book in four days, much to the surprise of his agent. He becomes fluent in other languages in a few hours and he can easily out-smart and out-manoeuvre lawyers, criminals and financial advisers. He’s a mega-brain on steroids, a Superman for the Information Age.

He is, perhaps, also a reflection of a cultural shift in perceptions of masculinity that places greater value on intelligence, acumen, refinement and articulacy over the more traditional ‘macho’ version of the rugged, unsophisticated and taciturn male ideal. Certainly, Eddie seems to acquire an assurance, charisma and a sexual attractiveness that he never possessed before. It seems that by using all aspects of his brain, he has uncovered the key to attaining his wildest ambitions.

Unfortunately, the effect wears off in a day, so Eddie has to track down Vernon to secure more pills. Vernon however, is somewhat indisposed, as another client in even more acute need has murdered him and rifled through his apartment in a search of the miracle pills. Eddie calls the police but interestingly enough, even without the benefit of pill-popping, he is able to find and make off with Vernon’s entire stash of the drug — enough for several months.

Jagged Little Pill

Now, as he is always the smartest guy in the room, Eddie turns his life around. First, deciding he needs to join society in boundless materialism, Eddie the erstwhile author switches careers. He decides to play the stock markets. He gets start-up capital from a mob loan shark who snatches one of Eddie’s pills and soon finds he very much enjoys being evil AND clever (maybe that wasn’t the smartest move for Eddie after all?).

Eddie becomes the overnight wonder-boy of Wall Street and is soon spotted by Carl Van Loon (Robert De Niro) one of the richest men in America. He hires Eddie as an investment guru to mastermind a huge corporate merger. Seeing his transformation, even his former girlfriend expresses her surprise and interest. Eddie’s second problem however, is that he loses his touch whenever he runs out of pills.

Although the benefits of the mind-enhancing drug quickly materialise, so too do some dangerous side-effects. When Eddie tries to track down other users, he finds out that they’re all dying or dead. Even his ex-wife warns him how the pills ruined her health before she managed to kick the habit.

Eddie’s dream quickly turns into a nightmare when he finds himself drug-dependent, at the centre of a corporate conspiracy contrived by a shadowy power, and hunted by the mob gangster who is now mainlining the drug.

There are Limits

I couldn’t get rid of a certain thought when writing my movie review:  ‘Limitless’ perhaps overcooks its premise by giving pill-popping Eddie not only a phenomenal ability to learn and recall data but also a kind of sixth-sense that allows him to anticipate future events and have knowledge he would not normally possess. Credibility is stretched when he develops previously unknown martial-arts abilities, simply from recalling scenes from Bruce Lee movies he once watched.

The movie also assumes that intelligence can make someone rich, but what if most of the information Eddie sees or hears about financial markets is misleading and unpredictable (as it so often is)? Also, his drug black-outs prove to become problematic – so much so that a murder plot emerges, but suspiciously simply fizzles out…

Power Play

It seems to me that ‘Limitless’ is primarily about power. The pills apparently provide the experience of having all information immediately at your fingertips, and more accurately than Google! With this in mind, perhaps ‘Limitless’ should have been smarter than it is?

The premise is only great if the participants have exclusive access to this particular drug. It’s only fun if you stay the smartest person in the room. The notion proves to be not quite as attractive when Eddie comes across other users. Imagine if everyone was made just as smart – then we’re all back to being ‘average’.

It becomes obvious that the moral of the story is that it’s not necessarily healthy to have your mental synapses firing on all cylinders all the time and it’s also never advisable to become dependent on a drug to achieve goals, as you could easily be held to ransom by those less intelligent, less ethical or more unscrupulous than yourself.

Information Overload

Director Neil Burger (‘The Illusionist’ 2006) and Executive Producer and star Bradley Cooper have enormous fun with this intriguing sci-fi material. Eddie is nicely played by Bradley Cooper as a kind of mental rags-to-riches story – the slacker who becomes a king. Burger uses all kinds of visual trickery to imagine the hyper flow of information into Eddie’s receptive brain: when Eddie is writing, letters fall from the ceiling; multiple Eddies are seen performing multiple tasks; the camera following Eddie rushes through Manhattan streets, flashing past blocks within seconds. Cooper and Burger see to it that a flattering light gently bathes Eddie’s face and his striking blue eyes are highlighted whenever Cooper’s character’s brain is ‘switched-on’.

It’s ultimately Cooper’s movie, even though Abbie Cornish and Anna Friel provide solid work in minor supporting roles. De Niro pretty much phones in his performance, playing Van Loon straightforwardly and without much shading. There’s a glimmer of interesting character development in Andrew Howard’s mob-goon who becomes shrewder in his criminality when he ingests the smart pill, but this is never fully developed.

…and Now for the Science Part…

If anyone is interested in the actual science behind this science-fiction film, then I first have to inform you that, like ‘Lucy’, the other recent movie about enhanced brain capacity, ’Limitless’ takes quite a lot of liberties with medical reality.

For a start, it’s not true that we use just 10 or 20 percent of our brains; the truth is that we only understand about 20 percent of how it functions. Neurologist Barry Gordona describes the myth as laughably false, adding, “we use virtually every part of the brain and [most of] the brain is active almost all of the time”.

Physics professor James Kakalios asserts that it is plausible that medical science could improve intelligence, but that neurochemistry is not advanced enough for this to be achieved currently. There are medications for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder which are sometimes referred to as cognitive enhancers because of their ability to help people focus their attention. The properties of fictional drug NZT reflect that of drugs chemically similar to methamphetamines.


Addicted or Bluffing?

Although the movie has its shortcomings, it is still terrifically entertaining. It doesn’t really set out to explore what such a pill might really do for mankind but tends rather to keep its tongue firmly in cheek.

I can’t finish my ‘Limitless’ film review without addressing the question at the end of the movie: is Eddie still a user, or has he actually found a way to taper off the drug while retaining the benefits? Personally, I think he’s bluffing (and I’ll explain why in my next article about ‘Limitless’ which analyses the first and last scenes).

Even though it’s inventive, stylish and wildly entertaining, ‘Limitless’ only uses about 20 percent of its brain, but still, that’s at least 10 percent more stimulating than most mainstream movies can manage.

What did you think ‘Limitless’ was really about, and how did you read the last scene? Is Eddie bluffing or not?

Let us know in the comments section below.

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