Film Review | Smart drug thriller is pretty smart

March 31, 2011 by R.U. Sirius

Limitless | Director: Neil Burger. Cast: Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, Abbie Cornish

The moment I saw the film title — Limitless — I knew I was in for an oversimplified Hollywood-styled dramatization of transhuman themes, and set my expectations to a moderately amusing piece of crap.

Surprise! This is a tightly constructed and reasonably clever piece of entertainment with some deep and deftly handled underlying themes. While it probably won’t please hyper-literalists and those who can only tolerate hard science fiction (is there any movie that will?), it will surely amuse — among others — anyone who has ever enjoyed the exhilarating rush of a brain stimulating drug — or the devastating crash that often follows.

The film revolves around a failing author in the throes of writer’s block who bumps into a drug dealer he knows from long ago. The dealer has gotten a hold of a new experimental drug called NZT.

It’s an underground breakthrough pharmaceutical that gives users the ability to access and process all the information in their memory banks and all the information that’s flowing through our info-saturated world and to see all the patterns in pretty much all things and where they’re leading. And at a speed that would make an advanced AGI from the 2020s jealous.

The writer takes the drugs, the fog lifts from his mind and… well, I’ll leave you to discover the rest of the plot (and to note the occasional holes in it) for yourselves.

“I see every scenario. I see 50 scenarios. That’s what it does, Carl. It puts me 50 moves ahead of you.” — Eddie Morra

Aside from keeping an audience interested and entertained, Limitless does a few other things well. The portrayal of a user’s relationship to underground drugs that he requires to carry on his life is spot on. And the dialogue and excellent cinematography skillfully conveys the experience of having an awakened, alert, fast-processing but, ultimately, overstimulated brain.

And Limitless also functions as a very tricky morality tale;  tricky because — using a nice plot twist — it turns out that it’s not the clichéd cautionary tale that you think you’re being shown. In fact, unless the viewer brings his or her own sense of morality with her, the film can be just as easily enjoyed as an amorality tale. I’ll leave it to readers to notice this for themselves (or not).

Limitless is based on a 2001 novel, The Dark Fields, by Alan Glynn, and I have to believe that the author knows something about smart drugs… to wit: they’re stimulants!

And as with the better-known stimulants, they have certain characteristics besides increased smarts — characteristics that might be part of some intrinsic functions in human brain chemistry that might not be easily decoupled from the explicit goal of greater intelligence.

For example, having chemically induced above-average access to your thoughts, along with increased wakefulness and comprehension skills feels good… it’s a kind of high. There is also often a corresponding increase in social self-confidence.

On the other hand, the drugs can make the user impatient with the slow responses of the world around them. (If you’ve ever waited on line at a store after taking six intranasal squirts of vasopressin, you’ll know exactly what I mean. “Whyisthatcashiermovinginslowmotion?”)

And it can be hard to stop whatever you’re doing — as most widely noticed with stimulants of abuse (generally, the illegal ones), excessive use can lead to a hyperactive psychosis.

And what does this Hollywood thriller have to tell us about such things?  Watch it and see.