Good research has gone into the creative powers of the unconscious and its unnerving powers. Tales of hypnotized patients recalling the precise details of any year (or day) of their lives or of artists and mathematicians dreaming creative works and solutions to their problems (Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan, for example, is said to dream songs up), and our own inkling of the strange power of our unconscious as it shows in dreams all fuel the enticing premise of Limitless: what if you could fully harness the power of your whole mind?
Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) is a writer with an iron mental-block. The very notion that there is a block between the dead accessible mental space and a rich hidden space parallels neatly the premise of the film (as opposed to a cynic’s view that there is no block at all but simply a dead mental space struggling to find ideas). As someone trapped in this dead space, Eddie loses his girlfriend, is late on rent, and is a badly-groomed, all-round failure.
All this rapidly reverses when he consumes NZT, a drug reminiscent of LSD in effect and sound, which opens the floodgates of his mind. Able to draw information from obscure, thought-to-be forgotten sources together with an immense power to observe and formulate on the spot, Eddie quickly plots his destiny, gets groomed, and surges into the city’s upper circles.
Throughout all of this, director Neil Burger imitates Eddie’s mind as best he can with his camera work. At times, the flourishes of colour and the focus on sharpening senses are interesting touches, but much of the time, the imitation of Eddie’s mind can be dizzying and are applied a little heavy-handedly.
As the inevitable consequences of the drug unfold, a handful of ominous potentials emerge: the drug seems to create a multiple self; Eddie watches himself enamour party girls and financial executives as if in an out-of-body experience; and, during his long blackouts, he seems to have made bloody deeds. Here, we are reminded of a typical splitting self where the dark side – werewolf, Hulk, Tyler Durden, etc – acts on its own and with its own logic. In this case, we wonder what this dark genius could be doing late at night with blood-sticky hands. What devious plot is being strung together there in the darkness? This thread, however, is not pursued and we are instead left with the kind of blackouts one gets when badly drunk.
Perhaps this is the weak spot in Limitless’s screenplay – that there is no emotional darkness nor emotionally struggle in Eddie. His emotional problems evaporate with NZT (despite the disconnect between having rational prowess and being emotionally sound) and there is no replacement with any lofty feelings or wisdom we might associate with great minds. But this is an action movie, and on that level the film does a good job of forcing Eddie into a storm of conflicts, twists, and sheer violence (one bloody scene in particular made the audience moan).
And if we have to pick out at least one interesting ideological note in Limitless , it is that Eddie’s path into politics is only made possible by his dealing with ruthless corporate sharks who deal in energy (with their hands in nothing less than oil out of Libya), so that he can afford to promote himself and step on the political stage. Seeing as though 49% of the Members of Congress can boast of being millionaires, Eddie’s path into politics seems to be a fair picture of (American) politicians at large and their frequent loyalty to private interests over that of the public. This association is then made open when Eddie’s ex-corporate boss, Carl Van Loon (Robert DeNiro), tries to gain leverage over Eddie by being his sole NZT supplier so that Eddie, once in power, will do his corporation’s bidding. With the architects of the housing financial crisis being rewarded with positions in Ivy League universities and the White House, and so many other similar examples of blatant corruption in American politics, Limitless does a good job at pointing at this reduction of politics to private interests tactfully – and with a lot of thrills. Nor does it hurt that most of us can get behind the idea of a radical genius (drug made or not) saving us from our political doom.