Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
March 2011

Intelligence for dummies

'Limitless' is too scared to be the high-concept film it should have been

Limitless
Relativity Media
Director: Neil Burger
Screenplay: Leslie Dixon, based on the novel The Dark Fields, by Alan Glynn
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Robert DeNiro, Abbie Cornish, Andrew Howard, Anna Friel and Johnny Whitworth
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 45 minutes
Opened March 18, 2011
(out of four)

In one area and one area only, Limitless is an indisputable success: It never fails to remind us that it could have made for a really good novel.

It is, of course, based on a novel, which I haven't read. I might now be more inclined to do so, if only to see how (or if) it follows through on all the possibilities and implications inherent in its very premise.

The film version proves absolutely incapable of following through on any of it. Its sole recourse is to narrate everything to death. The life of Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) is sensational and terrifying from the very moment he first takes that magic pill. Too bad we don't get to experience much of it. Instead we get hurried montages - playing almost like a trailer for a more interesting movie - and minor setpieces. Even those scenes only illustrate the film's concepts in little nuggets and broad strokes.

Don't even bother looking at the screen - we'll hear everything we need to know in the voiceover. This is a movie you could have playing in the background while you're cooking or balancing your checkbook or having a fantasy-baseball draft, and you'd never really miss a beat. A bit of visual flair here and there doesn't make the film any less prosaic.

The magic pill - dubbed NZT-48 and given to Eddie, a struggling writer, by his sleazy ex-brother-in-law - unlocks the full capabilities of the brain. A tantalizing thought, to be sure. And the film makes sure to explain to us just how tantalizing it is for Eddie. In fact, Eddie himself tells us. Eddie tells us how NZT makes Eddie feel. Eddie tells us what it allows Eddie to do. Eddie tells us what Eddie does and what Eddie discovers. Eddie tells us exactly how the drug works. Eddie tells us about the side effects that begin to take a toll on Eddie.

Limitless uses the constant narration almost as a means of rigidly organizing the story so it never runs the risk of really challenging the viewer. We always feel safe and detached - when in fact, the opposite should be the case. At a certain point, Eddie begins "skipping ahead," losing track of time, blacking out. Incidents occur that he may or may not have been involved in.

Oh, and people are following him, too. Needless to say, Eddie isn't the only guy who's discovered the wonders (and dangers) of NZT. Beyond a little bit of fancy photography, we never get any sense of the fear or darkness or disorientation that may be lurking underneath the surface with this new wonder drug.

The real question here is this: Where is the film's sense of curiosity? It's a telling sign that the most creative thing the filmmakers can think of doing with the character's newfound abilities is having him conquer the world of corporate finance. I mean, really? He has virtually unlimited brainpower and all he wants to do is get rich on the market? Why is he our protagonist again?

From a character standpoint, the movie relies almost entirely on Bradley Cooper's charisma to pull things off, but he's not actor enough to make Eddie into anything more than a stock leading man. His on-again, off-again girlfriend, Lindy (Abbie Cornish), is an insult to female characters, showing up when the plot requires her, and only when the plot requires her. And then there's the great Robert DeNiro, who . . . well, at this point it's just depressing. Suffice it to say the film doesn't exactly take advantage of his talents. Let's move on.

Just consider the implications of the premise for a second - something neither director Neil Burger nor screenwriter Leslie Dixon did, apparently - and think about all the roads down which it could possibly lead. Does the film take any of them? Not really, no. In small doses, maybe. But it refuses to focus on them - refuses to engage the story with any complexity.

That's the problem with high-concept sci-fi. It's not uncommon to get a good or even great idea, but it's pretty rare for a film to open it up and really look inside. Too many filmmakers either aren't interested or aren't capable of following those ideas wherever they might lead them. What we get is timid filmmaking for concepts that require risk. Go ahead - risk confusing people. Risk going into strange territory. But at the very least, show us you're interested in your own ideas.

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Read more by Chris Bellamy


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