If there was a pill that would make you super-smart, would you take it? Sure you would. I’d pop one right now if it would help me find my way to the next sentence a little faster. That’s what happens to the protagonist of Limitless, an ingenious new thriller about mind-doping. Eddie Mora (Bradley Cooper) is a deadbeat author crippled by writer’s block. He runs into an old acquaintance who slips him a designer drug called NZT, a transparent little pill that’s like Viagra for the brain. It’s said we use just 20 per cent of our grey matter; this pill activates the remaining 80. With instant access to his brain’s entire data bank, and all neurons firing at warp speed, Eddie finishes his book in a flash, learns new languages overnight, masters martial arts, seduces women with blinding charm, and cooks up wily algorithms to become a Wall Street wizard—brokering the biggest corporate merger in history with a crusty old-school tycoon (Robert De Niro). As with most drug trips, there’s a downside: the movie begins with a flash-forward of Eddie perched on the ledge of a skyscraper, about to jump, with a trail of dead bodies behind him.
Harnessing a magic bullet to conquer the world is a fantasy older than Faust. But Hollywood traditionally favours the muscular variety. It likes its blockbusters dumb, its superheroes simple. Genius is always suspect, the stuff of psychopaths and mad scientists. Even Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man has to gird his brilliance in a clunky suit of robotic armour. Lately, however, the movies have become infatuated with the notion of pure brain power. Last year’s most ballyhooed summer blockbuster was Inception, Christopher Nolan’s twisty thriller about spies who use their mental prowess to invade dreams. And 2010’s most critically acclaimed hit was The Social Network, in which teen egghead Mark Zuckerberg outflanks Harvard’s jocks to create Facebook. (Portrayed as the Marco Polo of geeks, he’s as much villain as hero. But in a jiu-jitsu feat of media spin, the real-life Zuckerberg used the movie as a foil, emerging as a philanthropic crusader while airbrushing his image on Oprah and Saturday Night Live.)
What felt groundbreaking about The Social Network was the crackle of its intellect, the combustion of young minds racing in the streets of cyberspace. Its kinetic dialogue isn’t natural—David Fincher’s repeated direction to his actors was “Faster!”—but it is intoxicating. In an age of smartphones and smart cars and high-speed everything, as silicon chips appropriate human memory and our brains struggle to keep up, the prospect of goosing them with a performance-enhancing superdrug is seductive, to say the least.
While there’s nothing on the market as potent as NZT, thinkers have been trying to crank their mental powers ever since Jean-Paul Sartre scribbled Being and Nothingness wired on amphetamines. Now there’s a whole galaxy of drugs designed to soup up the cerebral cortex, from Alertec to Adderall. Boomers scrambling to save what’s left of their brain cells are trying everything from mental gymnastics to ginkgo biloba. Even crossword puzzles have been repurposed as therapy.
Updating cinema’s tradition of turning drug trips into eye candy, Limitless director Neil Burger takes us into Eddie’s turbo-charged POV with 360-degree cameras that seem to absorb the whole world at once, along with Google Earth-like zooms through his neuron circuitry. But the innovation is grafted onto a classic narrative genre: the smart drug becomes a smart weapon as gangsters fight to control the stash. (There’s a priceless scene of a Russian thug getting hooked and discovering literacy.)
Unlike Inception, which wasn’t half as smart as it pretended to be, Limitless grounds its trippy visuals in a deft intelligence. The dialogue has the zing of vintage Tarantino, with enough wit to pull De Niro out of his late-career doldrums. As in The Hangover, Cooper’s alpha male hero is the Smartest Guy in the Room and gets away with blue murder. Yet we’re happy to go along for the ride, tickled that Hollywood may have finally begun to figure out that the sexiest part of the human anatomy is the brain.