Limitless is a wish-fulfillment film fantasy about a drug that makes you a super-genius. The concept has previously been explored in science fiction stories such as Daniel Keyes’ “Flowers for Algernon” (1958, filmed as Charly in 1968) and Thomas M. Disch’s Camp Concentration (1968). In all of these stories, one of the biggest challenges is to create a convincing portrait of a super-genius — a challenge that Keyes and Disch took head-on by writing their stories in the first person from the point of view of the guy becoming the genius. On the surface, Limitless is a much glitzier, much more superficial approach to the concept, yet it does a great job at this essential task. It sells the idea that Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) is smarter than anybody else in the room while he’s on the drug NZT.
Well, you do have to swallow some B.S. to get to that belief. Part of the expository explanation of how NZT works evokes the old myth that we only use a small part of our potential brain power. (Traditionally it’s said to be ten percent, but the movie doubles that.) This is nonsense, but if you can set that aside, the actual portrayal of how Eddie’s mind works when it’s on fire is very good. In fact, if the exposition had been that NZT improves your memory it would have made more sense, because that’s the core of Eddie’s improved intelligence: he can remember everything that’s strayed even on the fringes of his awareness, and he can connect the dots. “Pattern recognition,” as one of the characters puts it, which may well have been a shout out to William Gibson’s novel of the same name.
In any event, aside from selling the genius, the movie’s other strong hand is visual style and sheer momentum. There’s a recurring motif of the camera traveling straight ahead in an apparently endless zoom, which gives us a vertiginous sense of motion through an infinite (limitless!) space. This is the objective correlative of Eddie’s new-found mental powers. It gives us a visceral, disorienting sense of the rush of being the smartest guy in the room, of traveling very rapidly much further than we’ve ever been before.
The movie is a lot of fun. It’s playful, it’s funny, it’s exciting — it zooms along. Eddie hits a number of obstacles on his rising path, but he always seems to find the solution. Yet this kind of story can’t end well, can it? It opens up with Eddie standing on the precipice, ready to hurl himself to his death as killers try to break down his high rise apartment door. There’s an pervasive sense throughout the first two acts that Eddie is pursuing an empty goal, an impossible dream. His girlfriend (the smart, gorgeous Abbie Cornish) warns him against hubris. And Eddie’s pursuit of success takes him into the world of speculative finance, which these days can’t help but make us think of the Wall Street whiz kids who drove our country — and the whole damned world — into an economic abyss. Eddie is an endearingly bohemian screw-up as the film begins, but as he gets smarter he becomes more of a soulless yuppie who is only interested in greater and greater success.
This may be the secret genius of the film. I’m still not completely certain how to read the ending, which was not at all the ending I was expecting. The question is whether this is ultimately a satire. If I put myself in Abbie Cornish’s shoes in the final scene, I’ve got to think I’d be feeling ambivalent at best. I’d probably be feeling scared witless. Although this does bring up one of the film’s weaknesses, which is Robert De Niro’s merciless tycoon, Carl Von Loon. The name is an obvious jibe at the super rich, but the character actually needs to be more menacing and vicious, I think, for the final confrontation between Von Loon and Eddie to pay off. It’s still a pretty good scene, but it could have been more powerful.
As I walked out of the theater I thought I’d just seen a very slick, stylish entertainment. The more I think about it, however, the more I think it actually has a moral ambiguity at the heart of it that’s a pretty sharp comment on the USA today. The Wall Street bright boys are still running the country. Do they really have no limits?