DVD REVIEW: ‘Limitless’

Grade: D+

Limitless is a dumb film. It is about an author (Bradley Cooper) whose name escapes me, even though I literally just finished watching the film. Anyway, this author (named Eddie Morra, according to Wikipedia)  inadvisably takes a drug called NTZ-48 (weird that I remember the name of that) which he obtains via his ex-wife’s brother. He is behind on his first book deal and he is slowly sinking into the depths of a lazy, unambitious lack of motivation. His girlfriend (Abbie Cornish) breaks up with him because she sees he is an absolute failure. In his state of hitting rock bottom, it seems as though the drug couldn’t make his life worse. And wouldn’t you know it? It just so happens that the drug-dealing psychopath ex-brother-in-law holds the magical pill that allows an individual to instantly understand all of the universe!

This would be a mildly intriguing premise if  screenwriter Leslie Dixon knew anything about neuroscience and didn’t center the entire film around an unreasonable drug. The idea is that our brains function at 20% normally. NTZ-48 allows people to access 100%. There is a common misconception that people only use 10% of the brain, not 20%. And this is still a misconception. Dixon doesn’t even get the cultural urban legend right. And even if she got that right, she would still be factually incorrect. It is flat out wrong. And this is really basic science. I found this webpage labelled “Neuroscience For Kids” that clearly explains the origin of the falsehood and origin of the myth. If Wikipedia can disprove the science of a movie, I become skeptical.

Now let’s say hypothetically that I did buy the premise of the film. It still doesn’t explore any of the possibilities that would make the premise philosophically logical or worthwhile. Cooper starts off giving an interesting turn as a low-life writer, something totally different than the cocky Matthew McConaughey persona he normally embodies. When he takes the drug, he immediately sets out to understand and master the stock market. Eventually his goals expand into politics and a possible presidential campaign. While he does finish his one book, the fact that he is a writer is almost completely disposed of. Why? Is the film trying to say that our passions are only a product of our limited understanding? Is personality a fault?

The film does not address the issues of humanity, love, art, or religion. This is where I would be really curious about the potential for expanded understanding. And this is the area that a recently dumped writer should go after taking this drug. Instead he sets out on a money making scheme, significantly alters his personality, and ultimately becomes the Matthew McConaughey hot-shot Cooper normally plays.

The film claims that the drug bestows a four-digit IQ upon its users. But how would someone so smart and so responsible about everything (it particularly articulates the point that there is nothing you are not aware of when you are on the drug) totally forget to biologically asses what the drug does to him physically? Naturally, there is a point where the drug starts to harm him. How the screenplay gets around this issue is definitely a cop-out, it just stops harming him. And he makes many other idiotic mistakes as well. At one point he runs out of NZT-48, but magically has more for a while. And then, when his supply is completely depleted, he thinks, “maybe there is one more that I just didn’t see.” So he looks, and there actually is. How would the smartest person in history of humanity not notice that he is running out and then not carefully observe the small tin can that they are stored in? There is no reasonable way for him to have had that last pill. And to make things worse, he doesn’t even use that pill. He loses it. It is just in the film to give the audience some very brief, false hope.

So little information is even given about the drug (and it seems to evolve by the end of the film making the effects impossible to define or track with) that the film entirely loses focus of whatever moral it may be shooting for.

The ex-writer turned math genius and politician makes no effort to understand the nature of the universe or push human knowledge forth in any helpful way, other than make the occasional medical observation. All he wants to do is make money and become president. I fail to believe this is what would happen with such a substance.

As I have already pointed out, the science of this film is nothing short of bogus. However, some substances do come close to having the effects that NTZ-48 is supposed to. LSD opens new, unused pathways for neurotransmitters in the brain. The effect is a new perspective on the world. Many users report, as our protagonist describes of NTZ-48, an immediate understanding of the universe. As is heard many times in Limitless, “everything just makes sense.” Or so you think when you are on the drug. LSD was even used as psychiatric medication for depression and alcoholism in in the 1950s (with record success rates, Clark Gable being one of the success stories), which are two symptoms that NTZ-48 removes from Cooper’s life. The point I am trying to make is that this mystical miracle drug is both similar to acid in what it is biologically trying to do, and in the basic positive effects. But acid does not give its users a four-digit IQ. And when people take mind altering chemicals like acid, they do not function on superhuman levels. They just perceive things differently. At best, their creative side is pushed in new directions. And that, is the one detail of Eddie Morra’s life that the film throws out.

Robert DeNiro does show up in the film. He is fine in his small part, but it would have taken a lot more to save the film. I will admit that it has some nice tension and the actors hold their ground. But even the production values and camera effects of the film drag it to the level of  a low-brow Sundance film. I wouldn’t mind normally, but the film already totally lacks the sense of grandeur necessary for such a moral tale, that it really needs to look polished to pull much of anything off. It doesn’t.

What aggravates me most about the film, however, is the fact that even despite all of my scientific misgivings about the film, I would still be able to accept it. Scientific accuracy does not matter in a film that presents a reasonable moral dilemma or fable. But Limitless doesn’t. The last few minutes of the film are illogical for Abbie Cornish’s character and destroy any possible message the film could convey. I have no idea how I am supposed to feel about NZT-48 at the end of the film. That is a significant problem.

What starts out as an interesting premise in Limitless, quickly drifts so far from reality that it loses all relevance.

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  • Jose

    So its nothing like the book, which had the nice twist (at least implied) that everyone in power around the world was on the pill. Would’ve been nice if that was kept.

  • Nope, it changed the ending. That is kind of implied, but the way the book does still it sounds a lot better. I also think it exaggerated the effects of the drug. It is really inconclusive.

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