Monday 21 March 2011

Movie Review: Limitless

Do I write a review of the movie or do I write about the questions the movie raises? Do I tell you about the plot or do I wait until you've see it then talk about what it means?

Okay, let me try to do a little of both.

This American thriller was released on March 18, 2011 and is ranked by Rotten Tomatoes - in my opinion a good assessment of a picture - with a score of 65%. Remember under 60% is considered a bit of a stinker and since this one is only slightly over the line; is it good or just sort of good? Well, to each his own but I liked it. However as I read the criticisms of the film by various movie critics, I realise that for me, the premise is so intriguing, it covers up the flaws of the film.

Spoiler alert: Here's the film in a nutshell.

Eddie Mora is a loser writer who, through an acquaintance, discovers an experimental drug called NZT. Instead of using only 10% of your brain, you can supposedly use 100% of it while on the drug. Eddie becomes focused and confident. He suddenly can remember everything he has ever read, heard or seen with an ability to ingest and process huge quantities of information. After completing a book in four days flat that he has always talked about but never even started, he moves on to apply his new found cerebral talents to the world of finance and becomes an overnight success on Wall Street.

Hmmm, that's not much of a spoiler as I haven't touched on the intrigue of Eddie working with a business mogul, his run-in with a Russian loan shark, and how his long-term girlfriend dumps the old Eddie but lovingly comes back to the new Eddie. All very well and good, these are the ingredients of a decent thriller. But I come back to this premise I found so intriguing, this drug called NZT.

All of us (the majority of us?) toil either at our jobs, at our education, or at our training and bit by bit, inch by inch, we manage to claw our way up the ladder. However, it's an age old theme to have it all dropped in our laps in one fell swoop. We win the lottery; we're discovered on American (or Canadian) Idol, or the hospital calls to say that the babies were accidentally switched at birth and we are actually the true offspring of the Hiltons not Paris. Ah yes, the true offspring and I did I mention heir to the Hilton fortune?

Unlike fame or fortune, this film touches on the idea of our own noodle being instantly transformed from Forest Gump to Albert Einstein except in this case, with good looks, charm, and great taste for Wall Street suits. This isn't the first film to delve into this fairy tale mental rag-to-riches story.

The 1968 film Charly, based on the book Flowers For Algernon, tells the story of a mentally challenged man who undergoes an experimental procedure which increases his intelligence to the genius level. Unfortunately, this proves to only be temporary.

In the 1996 film Phenomenon, the protagonist, an ordinary man in a small town, is hit by a mysterious light from the sky and becomes a genius with telekinetic powers. This story is tragically cut short as our hero dies of a brain tumour.

Only the good die young as the saying goes. It is a curiosity that the book upon which the movie Limitless is based, The Dark Fields (2001) by Alan Glynn, ends in a similar fashion. That is, our hero comes from nothing, rises to dizzying heights, and then ends up once again at the bottom. The hero of the book returns to the bottom because the drug proves to be debilitating over the long run and then the hero in trouble with the law due to erratic behaviour runs out of the miracle drug he can no longer afford.

It would seem the overriding moral to any of these stories is that if you get your good fortune dumped in your lap, it is only temporary and you are destined to lose it. Nevertheless, it is an extremely intriguing idea. Just what are we truly capable of?

For years, there has been a saying, an old wife's tale, or just a rumour that we only use 10% of our brains. An article from Scientific American dated February 7, 2008 called "Do People Only Use 10 Percent Of Their Brains?" explains:

... the "10 percent myth" is so wrong it is almost laughable, says neurologist Barry Gordon at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore. Although there's no definitive culprit to pin the blame on for starting this legend, the notion has been linked to the American psychologist and author William James, who argued in The Energies of Men that "We are making use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources." It's also been associated with to Albert Einstein, who supposedly used it to explain his cosmic towering intellect.

The myth's durability, Gordon says, stems from people's conceptions about their own brains: they see their own shortcomings as evidence of the existence of untapped gray matter. This is a false assumption. What is correct, however, is that at certain moments in anyone's life, such as when we are simply at rest and thinking, we may be using only 10 percent of our brains.

"It turns out though, that we use virtually every part of the brain and that [most of] the brain is active almost all the time," Gordon adds. "Let's put it this way: the brain represents three percent of the body's weight and uses 20 percent of the body's energy."

Oh shoot. Here I was thinking I could explain my genius, or should I say lack of it, by saying that I only used 9% of my brain and yes, there was an Einstein lurking in the dark recesses of my cerebellum if only there was a way of getting some electricity to fire up those non-functioning neurons. Now I realise that if I'm already using 100% of my brain as per Scientific American's article, then I surely must have been short changed (only 2% of my body weight?) when they were handing out the grey matter. Quantum mechanics? String theory? Heck, sometimes I can't figure out how to reprogram the stupid clock on my microwave after the power comes back on. Geesh!

But what about some magic pill? Is it so magical? MSNBC reported on the ideas behind the movie Limitless:

The basic idea that medical science might someday make us smarter "isn't quite so crazy," said University of Minnesota physics professor James Kakalios, author of "The Physics of Superheroes" and "The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics."

"We have a variety of chemicals that can indeed affect the functioning of the brain. Look at drugs such as Prozac," which improve mood and concentration by changing the brain's electrochemistry, Kakalios said.
As for what's in "Limitless," though? "Taking a pill and becoming a supergenius? Mmmm, that's kinda crazy. That understanding of neurochemistry far eludes us at this stage," he says.

In reality
The film is a touch of science fiction. Obviously, NZT doesn't exist in real life but the idea certainly does. The term for NZT would be nootropic, a drug which would improve mental functions. A nootropic is a cognitive enhancer that is neuroprotective or extremely nontoxic. Note that it is nontoxic. A cognitive enhancer could also be called a productivity enhancer and something as simple as caffeine would be an everyday example of such a drug. This could also include a wide range a stimulants including illegal and dangerous drugs like amphetamines.

I think you can see a certain negative aspect to these productivity enhancers. Their effects are limited or temporary. A nootropic, by definition, is seen as something good but measuring whether something is truly a nootropic remains difficult if not impossible for medical science. Some vitamins are thought to fit the definition but as of yet, nobody has proven definitively that they do anything. As James Kakalios said above, "[The] understanding of neurochemistry far eludes us."

Final Word
As Roger Ebert so eloquently summarized, "The movie is not terrifically good, but the premise is intriguing... “Limitless” only uses 15, maybe 20 percent of its brain. Still, that’s more than a lot of movies do."

The screen writer for the film has concocted more of a feel good ending which differs greatly from the two films, Charly and Phenomenon, mentioned above and the book upon which the film is based. Eddie Mora wins. He wins over his drug, he wins over his enemies, and in the end he wins over his former loser life. It's an "HEA" film, happily ever after. The movie industry knows we, the viewing public, like our heroes to win.

I found the premise so interesting; it would quash any protests about the overall entertainment experience. 65%? Who cares? I enjoyed the film. Ah, and one additional point. I found the effects used in the film to recreate visually what our hero was experiencing in his drug addled brain to be an interesting interpretation of his heightened mental state. You are so intelligent, you are acutely aware of everything around you.

This seems like an appropriate part of my article to quote, perhaps sing, from the Wizard of Oz, "If I only had a brain..."


Rotten Tomatoes: Limitless: 65%

Wikipedia: Limitless

Wikipedia: The Dark Fields

Wikipedia: Nootropic
Nootropics, also referred to as smart drugs, memory enhancers, and cognitive enhancers, are drugs, supplements, nutraceuticals, and functional foods that are purported to improve mental functions such as cognition, memory, intelligence, motivation, attention, and concentration.

Note: Do not confuse the cognitive enhancer with nootropic. Nootropics are by definition cognitive enhancers, but a cognitive enhancer is not necessarily a nootropic.

Wikipedia: Cognitive enhancer
A cognitive enhancer is a substance that enhances mental functions such as concentration and memory. The first synthetic cognition enhancers to see widespread use were the amphetamines.

Roger Ebert: Limitless

MSNBC - Mar 7/2011
'Limitless' brainpower plot isn't all that crazy by Christopher Bahn

Scientific American - February 7, 2008
Do People Only Use 10 Percent Of Their Brains?
What's the matter with only exploiting a portion of our gray matter?
By Robynne Boyd


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