Wednesday, August 24, 2011


 I finally got around to watching Limitless. I'd read the novel on which it is based some time ago, Alyn Glynn's first novel, The Dark Fields. The novel is a fine noir thriller about smart drugs, the movie takes the noir out by giving the protagonist a love interest and adding a Hollywood twist/happy ending. The movie removes some of the minor logical flaws of the novel but adds more of its own.

Still, I recommend it. The movie is well cast and well acted, with Bradley Cooper and Robert de Niro.  And Johnny Whitworth plays an excellent Faustian devil as the drug dealer. There is a nice soundtrack and some wonderfully artsy photography. It asks the question, if a mildly autistic man gains access to more of his brain through a designer drug, and then leads a successful and organized life, is the self he had before still the same self?

It asks other things as well. But you cannot read the book or watch the movie without asking some questions yourself. This pill transforms him from mild ADD to being an instant genius, for a day. He can learn languages in hours, master any subject he undertakes to study, figure out long-range probability problems and expected stock values in a flash, yet he makes stupid mistakes that jar the logic of both novel and movie.

The enhanced protagonist seeks out a psychopathic Russian mafia loan shark to get a short term loan. He is genius enough beat the stocks, to compute trends and prices, but not smart enough to see where this will lead? Next is a pointless scene added to the movie where the protagonist takes a long dive from a cliff into the ocean, not knowing even how deep the ocean is at that point. There is something that might be gained with his risky plunge into the drug, but there is nothing that could be gained by the plunge into the ocean.  That scene is dumb on any level.

In the novel, the enhanced protagonist somehow doesn't think to have a chemical analysis of the drug made until he is running out of it.  The movie corrects this flaw a bit, and it smartly changes the method by which the loan shark discovers the drug.

In the novel, his tampering with the smart drug dosage has the protagonist having a black out during which he may or may not have killed a woman named Donatella (God-given). This works in the novel only as a symbol; he remains in the dark about whether he has killed his "God given" nature or not; the protagonist is never indicted but continues to be haunted by the uncertainty of his guilt.

The movie kept Faust but changed Donatella (married to a famous painter) into a nondescript woman for whose murder the protagonist is suspected and questioned by the police. He stands in a rigged line-up and goes free. The issue is never resolved in the movie at all and these scenes thus have no point. If they were going to drop Donatella as a symbol, they should have left the woman out of the movie altogether.

In the novel, there is a court case where a young mild mannered person kills someone, and the defense is that a drug made them do it.  The question then posed to the jury, if it all comes down to chemicals firing in the brain which can be so easily manipulated, where does free agency begin?  The movie abandoned this along with the war issues, which were also interesting and relevant.

The protagonist in the novel has not learned to love; if he had, he would have different priorities. The movie gives him a love interest but he doesn't seem to love her convincingly. He is suppose to be able to use his entire brain, but there are no spiritual, love, or compassionate elements; it is all material.  Given his power, he could devote himself to her but he does not; he could cure cancer or other diseases; he could unlock the secrets of the unconscious; hell, he could do anything he chooses.

But what does he choose to pursue? He goes after money and political power. He covets control.

Well, that works in the noir Faustian novel, not as well in the movie which turns into anti-Faust, which believes the power of the human conscious mind is indeed limitless.  That the enhanced synapses may yet figure out a new ending of the traditional Faust story.  I feel now that I'm being a bit too negative here, especially about the movie.  This too is fiction after all, and damn good thoughtful fiction.

I reviewed Alyn Glynn's terrific second novel, Winterland, some time ago.  You should read about the process of getting his first novel to film.  The novel is a timepiece of the late 1990s.  The movie makes it more relevant to current events.  You can read Alyn Glynn's column at this link.

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