Science has a word for the popular notion that humans use only 10 or 20 percent of their brain power: poppycock. While our minds may not have limitless potential, they are good at one thing: concocting fantasies in which they do.
Who wouldn’t want to have photographic recall, or a Sherlock Holmesian eye for the patterns in seemingly random details? Who wouldn’t want to combine a computer’s capacity for data handling with a person’s capacity for pleasure? Unlike flying and shooting webs from our hands, the four-digit-IQ scenario sounds plausible to our overweening brains.
Hence Limitless, an action thriller in which the hero downs a designer drug that gives him access to all his gray matter. Call it Philip K. Dick for Dummies. Like the drug itself, the carefully elaborated fantasy is potent enough to carry the movie quite a way before its inner idiot emerges.
Our hero is Eddie Morra, a blocked novelist who spends his days in a dumpy urban apartment pitying himself. How this downer obtained a book contract and a gorgeous, smart girlfriend (Abbie Cornish) isn’t explained. But since Bradley Cooper plays him, we can assume dimples were involved.
Everything changes when Eddie encounters his ex-brother-in-law, a drug dealer who offers him a sample of a supposedly FDA-approved brain enhancer called NZT-48. On the drug, Eddie has instant access to every memory and the processing speed of a supercomputer. “This was a drug for people who wanted to be anal-retentive,” he voiceovers incredulously.
Eddie soon sees the benefits of NZT: He can game the stock market and impress a powerful financier (Robert De Niro); win fistfights by sheer strategy; talk anyone into bed. Only problem is, the pills are running out. The FDA part was a lie. And withdrawal has side effects besides feeling stupid.
The screenplay by Leslie Dixon (loosely based on Alan Glynn’s novel The Dark Fields) simply leaps over a dozen or so logical objections. The movie desperately needs someone to show up and talk pseudoscience: The drug’s own limits are never properly explained. More importantly, if you had the formula for a superbrain drug, why would you distribute it to random novelists when you could be turning the world’s Donald Trumps and Oprahs into groveling addicts?
Director Neil Burger distracts the audience from these questions with the hyperreal, comic-book style that directors have been using to juice up power-trip fantasies since David Fincher pioneered it with Fight Club. The opening credits simulate the experience of superfast mental processing by tracking down an urban street at a pace only possible through digital trickery. When Eddie is on NZT, he’s washed with a radiance that makes Cooper’s blue eyes look preternaturally alert; when he’s off, everything goes gray.
It’s not easy to pull off a wish-fulfillment tale in which great power doesn’t bring great responsibility; the audience keeps waiting for the other shoe to drop. In Wanted and Jumper, films with similar styles and premises, the heroes came off as jerks. Eddie doesn’t earn his powers any more than they did, but Cooper, as always, seems to grasp the funny side of his smug-bastard persona. That’s good, since, by the time it reaches its cop-out of an ending, Limitless can’t be taken seriously.
Maybe it shouldn’t be. Our delusions of superintelligence are pretty funny — especially these days, as we enhance our brains with devices that give us unprecedented access to the whole store of human knowledge. Scientists have suggested that today’s texting teens are cyborgs of sorts. But when they hit a dead zone or drop the iPhone in a puddle, they’re just kids again.