By Rajko Radovic.
I like films that tell me something about the world we live in. I like to see mechanics exposed, a provocative plot line that does not only connect the dots but also shows the ways in which cogs fit together inside the clockwork. And this is where Limitless starts. Its opening scene shows a real threat of hitting the ground in a sudden rush of panic, because the main protagonist is out of ideas on how to stay on top of the power structure. Standing on the ledge of the skyscraper and staring at the neon jungle spreading below, he sees death as the only way to escape his seedy confederates who helped him get there. Tiny transparent pills that enhance mental capacities and allow him to see the world with staggering clarity and sharpened business sense have a limited time span and he had run out of them. Climbing to the top through the system requires enormous brainpower and calls for visionary highs. The idea that emerges with Limitless is that corporate business as we know it today is not only a power trip but also addiction to power, the kick within it.
What the film shows is that this form of capitalism is like a devastating drug. That basically everybody who samples the product is turned into an addict. The most successful among the users are those who are the most rabidly hooked on it, the celebrity businessman as the hardest and most ruthless junkie.
In the beginning, Bradley Cooper interprets a failed writer. But then, an accidental meeting with a dubious cousin of his ex-wife, a shadowy character with a dark face, leads to a conversation about who is more successful and who is doing what in their lives. A casual gab of winners and losers that brings into the story the tiny pill that contain an experimental, not yet released, but powerful drug. And the knowing smile of the cousin is enough to bait the insecure and famished artist into trying out a quick fix.
This tells us something about our general state of mind. It tells us about our readiness to take enormous risk in the name of instant gratification and immediate result. Limitless is a thoughtless film with a constant buzz and bright colours. It’s a film that continuously moves forward, without going anywhere. Because we have an impression that the main character is running in a spot, even when he is moving fast or standing propped up on the tips of his toes on the edge of suicide. What we really see through this main character and why the film is interesting is that it shows a new way to worldly success. It seemingly outlines a new take on the American dream under changed conditions, where all that matters is who among the players on the scene is using the most potent stuff. It’s not anymore about hard work and strong faith, or about time-honoured skills, education that requires effort and stamina, character and life experience. The dream is one hit away. You can swallow it.
Traditional values are reduced to a set of old knickknacks one can leave behind the moment one steps out into the busy street of a bustling city where all around, in cars, bars and offices are wolves in sheep’s clothing. In that kind of oppressive environment, of general insecurity, it seems as though the drug is a necessary evil, something that keeps one afloat, that gives one a sense of empowerment and confidence. The power trip lends to the addict a perfect front of luminous skin and a twinkle in the eye that not just helps him to go through the day but lasts long enough to facilitate his rise to the top of the food chain faster that the competitors. Immediate dangers and unresolved conflicts of the past are obliterated; there is only the present moment, the buzz, the light, being excited and being high, and everything happens in that moment. With Limitless, everything is now or never.
Thanks to the powerful pill, the main character outmaneuvers all opposition, from street-wise Russian gangsters to high rollers at the top tables in Manhattan. His mind is without much knowledge or any deep insight, but under influence his focus is perfect, his vision clear. He has complete control over his perception and his senses, and he says the right thing at the right moment. Prospects appear limitless. He is less of a man and more of a profile that fits an image of success.
Bradley Cooper provides a perfectly innocuous appearance. He is handsome, he is attractive, but completely forgettable the moment one turns one’s eyes away from him. In other words, he is a flawless modern-day shape shifter that does horrifying things one moment that are easily forgotten the next, once he flashes a new smile.
The contemporary evil dwells in complete visibility, right under our noses. It’s on our screens, in our homes, in the news, on the web, and we see it. What the drug does in the film is to make things glaringly obvious. Yet the understanding of what we see is distorted, we don’t know anymore what is good and what is bad as the hallucinatory high reduces the world to what works and what doesn’t, to what gives us a buzz or lets us down. While under the influence of the pill, perspective is lost and everything becomes of one dimension. Limitless is filmed without any shadows on the excited spectrum of possibilities. There are no distances that one needs to strive to surmount. Jittery camera movements take us there in an instant of spectacular zoom. All method actors such as Robert de Niro, in a supporting role as corporate tycoon Carl Van Loon, or Bradley Cooper in the leading role, have to do is to provide behavioural emoticons to fit the busy shots of bright colours and cool music.
The most darkly disturbing notion that underlines the film’s flashy narrative is the possibility of an upcoming tyranny by a futuristic Führer who would come out of nowhere with an appealing smile and an outlandish idea to go with it. Any common loser with dreams of big times now has a ticket to ride to the top, provided that he gets hooked on the right drug and doesn’t lose his way in the colourful forest of pharmaceutical products, leading to the patient-friendly realm of chemical miracles.
Limitless was adapted from a novel by Alan Glynn and directed by Neil Burger.
Rajko Radovic is a filmmaker and freelance journalist based in Canada.