From the upcoming edition of The Catholic Key, Santiago Ramos reviews ‘Limitless’:
One Pill Makes You Smaller
By Santiago Ramos
One way to measure success in a work of science fiction or fantasy, the critic James Wood has written, is its success in “combining the fantastic and the realistic so that we can no longer separate them, and of making allegory earn its keep by becoming indistinguishable from narration itself.” In other words, we can’t separate the fantastic from the realistic because each is a necessary part to a beautiful whole. Each part justifies its existence because it forms an essential part to a whole that’s worth reading. Or, in our case, worth watching.
How does this harmony between the fantastic and the real occur? I can name several films where the fantastic/sci fi element creates or enhances a particular human problem so that resolving it, or living with it, or finding the meaning of it becomes the viewer’s foremost preoccupation. The fantastic element points beyond itself. For example, the regime of genetic engineering in Gattaca makes us ponder the social ethics of a future where everyone manipulates their offspring’s genome, but it also makes us think about human striving and destiny, about work and grace (the hero of that movie became an astronaut even though he didn’t have the genes for it). The abbreviated lives of the human clones in Never Let Me Go were there to focus our scrutiny on the vicissitudes of our own lives. District 9 is about District 6. The film critic Andrew Sarris wrote that only a sci-fi show like Twilight Zone would be allowed to actually detonate a hydrogen bomb on primetime television during the 1950s—the fantastic setting displaced the public’s fear, and it also allowed it a square look at our nuclear predicament. (The episode he was referring to is “Time Enough at Last.”)
The main limitation in Neil Burger’s Limitless is that it does not consistently exploit its fantastic premise for all of its metaphorical depth. Too often it merely dwells on the fantasy and the fighting, and not even in an entertaining way. Bradley Cooper plays Eddie Morra, a lowly writer who cannot get himself together, or even get a haircut, and is nowhere near finishing the novel for which he has already received an advance from his publisher. His girlfriend Lindy (Abby Cornish) dumps him at the beginning of the film, precisely because she has been waiting too long for her boyfriend to begin to live deliberately. Morra has had trouble with life for a while, actually—he briefly married another woman named Melissa Gant (Anna Friel) nine years before. It is in meeting his former brother in law from that marriage that his life begins to change.
Melissa’s brother is named Vernon (Johnny Whitworth), and he offers his suffering former in-law a small clear pill worth $800 that will do something to help his helpless life. Morra admits to himself that he is indeed helpless, and takes the pill. Immediately he recognizes a change in perception and in clarity of thought; he would later learn that the effect of the pill is to allow your mind to use up all of the brain, not just 20% of it (this is in fact scientifically unsound) thus giving you an edge in resolving any problem you have to face. Such as, for example, cleaning your life up and finishing that novel.
Morra does that and more—he goes from writing a brilliant novel to shaking the world of finance. He takes one pill a day (he scores a big stash of them thanks to some unsavory circumstances following Vernon’s death) and makes exponential gains in the stock market within a fortnight and catches the eye of big-deal investor Carl van Loon (played by Robert DeNiro, the strongest performance in the film). Van Loon hires Morra to help him broker a huge merger. Morra gets richer and richer. His only problem is that his supply of pills—the drug is called NZT—is running low. And some adverse side effects are starting to burrow into his joyful domination of the world.
It’s at this point that the plot becomes saturated in action scenes, and the movie shifts from being a cautionary tale, to a Public Service Announcement (Drugs are bad, look at what they’ve done to this guy), to a story that is merely about a magic pill. There is nothing wrong with a story about a magic pill; my only sorrow is that this movie could have been a story about a magic pill and about the havoc wreaked by omnipotent ambition and greed that such a pill allows to exist. The story of the Ring of Gyges is more interesting because it is about more than a magic ring: it is about what we would do if we could get away with everything. Limitless has a similar premise, and yet it fails to squeeze all the juice it could get from it: it is more about the chase and the fighting and the intrigue and the explosions.
Perhaps the best evidence for what I am arguing is in looking at what Morra actually does with his pill. Here he is, a writer with the capacity—thanks to NZT—to do anything. What does he actually do? He goes into finance. Then, towards the end of the movie, he goes into politics. Money and power. (Is art merely the dimmest section of the power spectrum?) Morra says something about “making an impact on the world,” but what he really insists upon—as he says twice in the movie—is “building a nest egg” (!). The magic pill could give him omnipotence, but it could not make the scope of his ambition more interesting or imaginative or even horrible.
Santiago Ramos is pursuing graduate studies in philosophy at Boston College.