Limitless: This belongs with John Holbo’s “metaphysical McGuffins,” plot points that may be based in science fiction but don't really need to be science fiction to make sense. What if there was a pill that could make anybody who took it “the best they could be”? What if you could never be sure who around you was taking such a pill and who was clean? The pill’s effect has no obvious analogue to any real-life substance: at one moment, it mimics Prozac; at another, Ritalin; at yet another, LSD or cocaine. Or maybe it’s simply Type A Personality in a bottle. The question whether the person who takes it is really, after the fact, brilliant, or whether he’s a fraud, is never really explored—and it doesn’t it seem to matter, when the effects are the same, either way.
If you happened across such a drug, and you started using it (for what were more or less good ideas at the time), could you successfully use it to make the world a better place? Would the temptation eventually get to you, and pull you into the evils you started out trying to transform? Would “the system” be too strong for even your chemically enhanced self to break out of it? Would just the fact that you were using a drug turn you into a kind of high-IQ Patrick Bateman?
These questions don’t really matter for the fun, which involves an original bunch of bad guys and a new-style regular-guy superhero who gets into some original situations trying to outwit them. There seem to be a few plot holes, and the ending may be too ambiguous for all but the most diehard indie-film fans. Is the message that drugs are OK? Or, arguably, not much better, is the message that even Prozac and coffee can turn you into a junkie? Given the choice between Limitless and, say, The Adjustment Bureau—another movie, a more mainstream one, about a regular guy elevated suddenly to the heights of ability and influence—or Pi—a much weirder movie with something of a similar feel—I think Limitless had the more interesting premise and the more engaging story. Admittedly, The Adjustment Bureau had angels, making sure everything worked out in the end.
The movie was directed by Neil Burger (who also directed the very well received The Illusionist) based on a book by the Irish novelist Alan Glynn (original title: The Dark Fields). The screenplay is by Leslie Dixon, who’s previously written several woman-centered way-out but not quite science-fiction movies like the remakes of The Thomas Crown Affair and The Parent Trap: ordinary people on amazing adventures, people out of place. The lighting seems a little off, with the backgrounds shot beautifully but the people at mid-range a little flat, as if they’d been filmed in a studio (and maybe they were), but the effects of the drug and of its wearing off are signaled visually in a very appealing way.
The trailers on the DVD were all for medievalist action movies from the same studio, like The Season of the Witch, Immortals, and The Warrior’s Way. This caused no little apprehension about what was to follow, but that turned out to be actually misleading.
UPDATE: I learned from the review in the Philadelphia Inquirer that although the film is set in Manhattan, many of the exteriors were shot in Philadelphia.