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Revisiting Limitless, a movie about drugs and loneliness

A would-be cautionary tale that's actually a pretty great argument for smart drugs

Rogue Pictures

Later this week, CBS will start airing Limitless, a series that continues the 2011 film of the same name. Limitless is making the same gambit as Fox's Minority Report, in hopes that the plot of a science fiction thriller will translate well into a weekly crime drama. Where the latter just lifts its setting from Stephen Spielberg’s movie, though, the former will directly continue a cinematic plot that piles up so many cliches it almost sorts itself out.

Limitless is an adaptation of The Dark Fields, an apparently far more pessimistic science fiction novel, which author Alan Glynn described as "a pharmaceutical Faust." Its protagonist, played by Bradley Cooper, discovers a mysterious drug called NZT-48 while down on his luck. NZT users can remember and connect anything they’ve ever learned, at an astonishing speed. In other words, it’s a smart drug. Most of the plot is predictable from those two words: it’s the collision of an anti-drug morality tale and an anti-hubris morality tale, the aforementioned Faustian bargain.

But Limitless is a fantastic example of a film that spends so much time connecting the basic dots of various overworn genres that it ultimately doesn’t quite fit into any of them. It’s an indexed guide to our most obvious cliches about the danger and power of intelligence, stripped of their darker, more interesting implications.

I first heard Limitless described as a film about the myth that humans only use 10 or 20 percent of their brain power. That’s the explanation for NZT-48 — even if it’s delivered by a drug dealer who doesn’t actually know how it works. But Limitless actually hits the trope much less heavily than some science fiction. The underpinning of this myth is often not just that our brains are underutilized, but that our brains hold secrets, like some unexplored ocean depth. Because there is so much we don’t know, it’s a cleverly irrefutable explanation for superpowers or psychic abilities. The most high-profile and extremely literal example is the Scarlett Johansson film Lucy, in which a human brain levels up like RPG characters: activating specific percentages of it unlocks super-speed, telepathy, and the ability to turn into a nanocomputer and assimilate all human knowledge.

If you’re smart enough to learn theoretical physics, shouldn’t you be able to charm your way into a party?

But NZT doesn’t fit into the superhero framework of Lucy or something like Heroes (which also used the brain-percentage myth). Its effects are more like the Holmesian pattern recognition we see in a whole subgenre of TV crime series. In the film, Bradley Cooper runs quick detective-style scans of clothing and accessories whenever he sits down with someone, although his observations rarely come into play — it’s mostly a stylistic signifier of intelligence, the interpersonal equivalent of playing chess or scrawling equations on a board.

The allure of this ability is that unlike telekinesis or super-speed, pattern recognition is universally human. If superhero stories let us imagine things that are clearly impossible, super-heuristics stories purport to show us things that anyone could theoretically do if they were just better at paying attention. In the Limitless TV trailer, the ordinary protagonist doesn’t suddenly develop super-strength, he figures out precisely how much strength he already has and uses it to perform an acrobatic getaway.

In the film, NZT is basically magic: if you’re smart enough, no situation is too hopeless to escape with the help of an eidetic memory and a lifetime of History Channel documentaries. Arguably, though, the trope of perfect pattern recognition — the crime-solving kind that doesn’t require activating extra parts of your brain — is already magic. It posits a world where everything is predictable and nothing is extraneous: if a watch is wrong or someone has dirt on their sleeve, it’s rarely random chaos. It means something. The entire premise of comedy-detective series Psych is that claiming psychic powers is more believable than telling people you’re smart enough to perfectly link pieces of evidence in a crime scene.

In Limitless, being smart makes you the best human

In some ways, compared to stories about super-scientists or detectives, Limitless actually has a uniquely mundane vision of what smart people do. It’s squarely against the idea — put forward most clearly in direct Holmes successors like Sherlock and House — that intelligence makes for eccentric misanthropes. If anything, being bad with people is a sign of stupidity; if you’re smart enough to learn theoretical physics, shouldn’t you be smart enough to reconcile with your girlfriend or charm your way into a party?

Our stories about super-intelligence often end up as cautionary tales about the cost of knowledge. The 1966 novel Flowers for Algernon, about an experiment that transforms a low-IQ man into a genius, is a prototypical example, with its protagonist slowly becoming lonelier and more cynical as the people around him can’t match his wits. (It’s been parodied in episodes of The Simpsons and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.) In more extreme versions — including Lucy and The Lawnmower Man, which pulls some plot elements from Flowers for Algernon — becoming enough of a genius means becoming totally inhuman.

In Limitless, being smart makes you the best human, because the surest sign of intelligence is being able to perfectly blend into an environment. A surprising number of characters seem to be on NZT, but it’s effectively invisible, because they’re mostly busy going to expensive restaurants and inflating their bank accounts. The expectations around super-intelligence make Bradley Cooper’s character seem strangely unambitious, from his plans to game the stock market to his increasingly nondescript wardrobe. Becoming a millionaire overnight is impressive in a vacuum, but not when compared to becoming a cybernetic god. After all he’s gone through, he’s still like us.

The intelligence in Limitless clearly is supposed to have a price as high as any other fictional enhancement. It’s supposed to be comparable to real-life cases of using steroids, Adderall, or any other performance-enhancing substance — temporary ways of overclocking our bodies that will harm or kill us down the line. And again, it manages to completely undercut the trope. This is partly because of a jarringly optimistic recut ending, but it’s also present in the basic framing. Limitless’ protagonist isn’t just a loser at the start of the film, he’s presented as catatonically depressed. Taking NZT doesn’t come off as reckless so much as a last-ditch attempt at self-preservation.

A story about how far someone will go to end his isolation

That casts the events that follow in a completely different light. NZT is a cure, not an augmentation — it’s unlocking possibilities that should be there in the first place. When a friend complains that the drugs "aren’t him," it comes off like a knee-jerk rejection of any mental health drug. When the consequences of quitting turn out to be potentially deadly, it doesn’t remind you of heroin, it reminds you of first-generation antidepressants. Instead of being about hubris or separation from humanity, Limitless can be read as a story about how far someone will go to end his isolation. It takes a genre that’s often deeply ambivalent about changing our state of nature and convinces us that drugs are awesome.

Sometimes a film works because it leans into its nonsensical cliches, deepening them into something much more interesting. Sometimes, it works when it fumbles them entirely.