Limitless: Altered States at the Movies
From Mary Burgan
A couple of weeks ago, I had to take heavy steroids for an eye condition. They caused me to feel beyond myself; I cleaned my house, fixed broken furniture, wrote my movie reviews for Borderstan, and still got up early in the morning, ready for more.
That experience helped me to appreciate the story of Eddie Morra, played by Bradley Cooper, in Limitless.
The most talked-about science nowadays is neurology, displacing quantum physics in the popular imagination. Limitless shares in this interest as it explores the intellectually propulsive powers of drugs.
I almost skipped this altered-state movie because I was suspicious of its big box-office status. I’m not fond of car chases and explosions, those features that seem to sell movie tickets these days. But Limitless turned out not to have them, though it does have some nifty special effects as the hero morphs from one self to another or dives into New York City traffic. This movie also has some intriguing science-fiction questions about the nature of inner versus outer reality.
The most talked-about science nowadays is neurology, displacing quantum physics in the popular imagination. Limitless shares in this interest as it explores the intellectually propulsive powers of drugs — like the steroids I was taking or the Adderall that college students now take to increase their concentration at exam times. In the movie, a small, transparent pill that looks like a shirt button delivers tremendous intellectual drive. The hero ingests one and not only meets a book deadline that he has been resisting for a year or so, but cleans his grungy apartment, cuts his grungy hair, and masters French.
Obtaining a stash of the little pills, he amasses a fortune through mastery of the stock market and wheeling and dealing with a low-life criminal and the likes of Robert De Niro, who plays a seasoned but ruthless financier. In the process Cooper’s performance helps to involve the audience in Eddie Morra’s frenzied efforts to hold onto his gains. He is always on the run — glazed and sweaty, nervous and charming. The plot becomes very bloody as the stakes become higher for the hero. (I have to say that nothing like that ever happened to me on steroids or, I’m willing to bet, to students on Adderall).
I will not tell you how it all turns out, except to say that there’s enough wit at the end to redeem Limitless from blockbuster hype. If you want a similar film, but with larger metaphysical ambitions, you may want to see Ken Russell’s Altered States from 1980.
I have to admit that I skipped that film first time around because I found Russell’s aesthetic a bit too strongly attracted to psychedelic violence for my taste. I liked Russell’s adaptation of D. H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow (1969), but Tommy (1975) was too heavy for me. Now I’ve put Altered States on my Netflix queue to finally test my expectations. Meanwhile, I’d like comments from any reader who has seen the film. Although Limitless may be a direct descendent of Russell’s movie, it makes no pretense of being more than a weekend entertainment.
For precedents about the lure of playing with human potential through science you could travel back even further to view the Ur-movie on the topic. Yes, I’m thinking of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The first modern version of the Robert Louis Stevenson story about the scientist who drank his own experimental formula was made in 1931, starring Frederick March.
I haven’t seen that film, partly because it was purchased and suppressed by MGM, which made its own competing version in 1941, starring Spencer Tracy. That version may be too corny for the modern viewer, and its special effects cannot match what a film like Limitless can offer. But it is another good entertainment. And you can watch it and the 1931 version for free online.