REVIEW: Limitless

Limitless poster and images ©2011 Relativity Media, all rights reserved.

How many times have you said to yourself, “If only I didn’t have to sleep.” Or “If only I tap into my brain’s full neuronal capacity, imagine the things I could do?” Such neurocognitive superpowers would seem to be the stuff of science fiction…for now. In the new film “Limitless,” these wishes unexpectedly come true for a struggling writer, but the results—and unexpected side effects—cause him to wonder whether it was all worth it. Sleek, stylish, sexy and well-crafted, “Limitless” is part scientific inquiry into the limits of expanding the pharmacopeia beyond current human capacities and part thriller to see if the main character who dares to try will get away with it.’s full review of Limitless under the “continue reading” cut.

REVIEW: Limitless Grade: B+

“What kind of a guy without a drug or alcohol problem looks like this?” ponders a disheveled, unkempt Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) in the new film “Limitless.” Since he’s obviously never met a scientist desperate to publish, he self-responds: a writer. Mired in writer’s block with a looming book contract, living in a New York City rat hole, and dumped by his successful bankroller/girlfriend (Abbie Cornish), Morra is a prototype of every hard-up creative in the absolute nadir of his or her career.

Seemingly by chance, Morra bumps into his ex-brother-in-law Vernon (Johnny Whitworth), a former drug dealer now “consulting” for a pharmaceutical company. He promises Eddie salvation for all his troubles—NZT48, a new miracle drug under development and clinical trial that activates special brain receptors and circuitry to achieve 100% neuronal function. A desperate Eddie takes the chance. Through some very clever color cinematography, the moviegoer takes part in Eddie’s miracle; 12 hours later, he’s written half his book, cleaned out his apartment, and gotten back in the good graces of his landlord. He is a new person.

A clever internet campaign for "Limitless" mimics popular pharmaceutical advertisments. Ethics and limits of drug development are a thematic undercurrent of the film.

Craving more of his creative panacea, Eddie seeks Vernon out, to discover that not only is NZT48 not FDA approved, but is being dealt illegally, something that ultimately costs Vernon his life. Now the sole proprietor of an entire stash of NZT48, Eddie becomes the king of the world. He reads books in hours, learns languages and instruments in days, makes millions in the stock market, and becomes an expert of multiple specialties within weeks. His life is limitless. If all of this seems too good to be true, it is.

With his stash dwindling, Eddie begins to experience side effects—headaches, nausea, vomiting, losses of chunks of time—and needs more and more NZT48 to function at full capacity. He is dismayed to learn that all of the NZT48 users in Vernon’s address book, which includes his ex-wife (Anna Friel), are either dead, dying or ruined. To top it off, Eddie is now deeply ensconced in a financial trading company, with his new boss Carl Van Loon (Robert De Niro) attempting to broker the biggest merger in corporate history. Leslie Dixon’s clever screenplay, based on the novel “The Dark Fields” by Alan Glynn, complicates the science plot with assassination attempts, murder charges, and a layered group of shady characters, all of whom become intertwined with NZT48.

Marra with his boss Van Loon as his world begins to deteriorate in a scene from "Limitless."

The basic idea of medical science bestowing us with ‘limitless’ brainpower isn’t all that crazy, according to University of Minnesota physics professor James Kakalios, author of “The Physics of Superheroes” and “The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics.” In fact, drugs like Prozac and other SSRI inhibitors actively function by changing the brain’s basic electrochemistry. While it is not true that we only use 10-20% of our brains (we use all of it at different times), it’s only a matter of time before scientific understanding of neurochemistry might outpace the ethical morass of whether such enhancement is appropriate or worth the ensuing side effects, a theme that “Limitless” explores quite well.

The physical deterioration that Eddie experiences is quite possible, but Kakalios suggests that in real life, his character might even end up dumber than he started with a very rapid withdrawal. Without revealing the surprise ending, suffice it to say, NZT48 definitely leaves Eddie’s brain permanently altered. And this clever movie will leave viewers with lots of food for thought.

Relativity Media has put together a very interesting, clever infographic detailing some key facts about the human brain, its capacities and limitations, and the possibilities of future development of the fictional neuroactivating drug portrayed in the film:

An infographic on brain capacity and the possibilities of the development of a real-life NZT. (Click on image to enlarge.)

Official Trailer:

Limitless goes into wide theatrical release on Friday, March 18, 2011.


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