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Why Limitless is About Cyborgs and Magic

Limitless poster

So, UnknownBinaries & I recently saw Limitless. Now the film’s animating premise is an old one, and you hear it in nearly every piece of science fiction concerned with human enhancement: we only use ten or fifteen or [insert number] percent of our brain or brain power or potential…or whatever. The science behind this trope isn’t strictly correct, mind you, but it’s not completely false either. It’s hard to talk about the operations of the brain without falling into the heavily loaded language of “efficiency,” “carrying capacity,” “throughput,” “processing power,” etc. The problem with all of that talk is that it’s directly tied to the ideas of production and consumption, which are values that come directly out of the mass-production developments of the techno-industrial revolution–and I don’t just mean the musical style. What I’m saying is these words taint and colour everything we do and every way we talk nowadays, and the reason I bring this up is so we can try to talk about the brain.

[ad#longpost]So, while we don’t know a lot about the brain, all told (or at least I don’t) one of the few things we know is that an abundance of certain chemicals in it can make it easier for us to think about more things, to make connections between those things, and to generally be better at learning, maintaining attention, and focusing. We can measure these things, if that’s important to you, and so, conversely, we can know that the lack or inhibition of these neurochemicals causes us to be…worse. Stupider. So take that as our starting point and we’ll get going from there.

If we have to talk about spoilers, at this point, you haven’t been paying attention, but be warned that they do get heavier as it goes on. So be warned.

The situation is as follows: you are a down-on-your-luck schmoe who has exceedingly brilliant ideas and a great deal of passion for them, but you just can’t seem to get them to come out in the way you need them to. And you really need them to, because you have a major contract to fulfill and a serious deadline to meet. One day, through a series of happenstances, you come into possession of a single dose of a drug, NZT48, which acts on your brain in such a way as to give you near omniscience–and best of all you’re told it’s 100% safe, legal, and effective! You are, of course, skeptical (or you should be), but there is still the little matter of the aforementioned life-altering obligation. So you take the drugs, and things…Change for you. The world is clearer, sounds are sharper, sights are cleaner, smells are crisper, and you are noticing everything. Not only are you noticing everything, but you’re collating that new information and correlating it to old information you didn’t know you had retained; things you half-saw or heard one time suddenly become clearly remembered and relevant. Your ideas are crisp and clear and you meet that deadline with no problems. And then you go to sleep.

It’s all gone when you wake up. The sights, the sounds, the smells, everything. The world is a muddled, muddied mess. Again. You are…merely you. The previous you: unable to think, unable to create, unable, you believe, to be brilliant. Life is shit. So you find the guy who gave this drug to you, and apparently he’s been worked over pretty hard, and he tells you a few things like, “oh that ‘FDA Approved’ line was a lie.” And so of course you’re like “Holy Crap…um, More please?” And so now this guy has you. He asks you to step out for a bit, go get him some breakfast, and you do, and when you come back, his apartment is tossed, ransacked, and he’s fucking dead on his own couch with a bullet in his head. Freaking out, you call the cops, but while you’re waiting for them to show up something occurs to you: did the people who did this find the drugs? You know…Your drugs.

So you search his place, and, eventually, thanks to a stroke of insight (remember this) you find enough NZT to supply you for a long time, a notebook full of names, and a bunch of money. All of this is very important. You have enough seed money to change your life, enough of your pills to keep you a genius for months (if not years), and a list of contacts to leverage to obtain more, if need-be. You’re set.

You are not set. Long story short, after weeks and months of your extended NZT usage, you start having blackouts. You get sick, you throw up a lot, and you lose long stretches of time. Something is seriously very wrong. You go to the notebook, and you start calling around to the names. Every other customer listed in the book is either dead or so sick as to be nearly dead, and you are now shit-scared (or you should be). Eventually, someone close to your dead drug dealer gets in touch with you, and tells you what the deal is:

You have come into possession of a large number of doses of a drug which acts on your brain in such a way as to give you near omniscience. But if you stop taking it, cold turkey, It Kills You. Your brain burns out from working at and above peak capacity, starts to need the extra chemicals in order to function at even a basic level, then you stroke out, go into a coma, and eventually die.

Now, step back. This revelation would be a perfect place for any film to go into the standard moralizing about the perils of humans enhancing our minds beyond what we were meant to know–basically to retell Daedalus and Icarus again and again and again. But… But.


What we get, instead, are several parallel lines of thought about what it means to become enhanced, explored over the course of the film. It does this through the different people who’ve been taking NZT48, as each person has her or his own perspective on the experience (and this is, to an extent, reflected in the mode and style of cinematography). One person takes it and he becomes a ruthless Fortune 500 billionaire in a little under two years. One person takes it and she recognises that there will be a terrible price to pay, so she stops…and she loses the ability to maintain fairly basic mental operations. One person takes it and he recognises that what he wants to do with his life is bigger than money and writing SF/F novels about utopias, so he sets about creating a new world. One person takes it and she sees herself as not herself, abhors the actions and lines of thought she undertakes, and vows never to do it again. One person takes it and he takes a meteoric rise from loan sharking street thug to criminal mastermind.

And so if we look carefully, we see that each of these lines of consideration stems from the individual’s psyche and personality–each of the people who make their choices, take NZT, and then make more choices. So, in this setting, this drug doesn’t make you into something you aren’t– rather it enhances everything you are. As our protagonist, Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper), deals with having decided to use NZT, we see what we think at first must be some kind of long term side-effects: even when he’s not on NZT, he has the ability to quickly perceive and apprehend changes in pattern, to notice new things and figure out what they might mean; he also retains the ability to think more steps ahead when faced with problems. But if we remember, these were always part of him and we saw this “seeing things coming” in other parts of his life, prior to his taking NZT; he just wasn’t doing anything with it. NZT has simply widened the scope of his natural perspective, and yes, that is an important change: it perhaps even fundamentally changes who he is by changing what he can do. But the argument this film seems to want to makes, “Yeah, but so does coffee.”

When we alter our brain chemistry, our body chemistry, we are literally changing who and what we are. We can do this through food, through drinks, through artificial chemicals, through “natural” substances, but no matter what, we’re altering the ways in which–and, yes, the efficiency at which–we function.

So, back to it. You’re taking NZT, a drug which gives you godlike knowledge, but it fucking kills you, right? So, if you’re like me, you’re thinking “First Order of Business: Fix That.” You want to make it so you stop getting these blackouts and these violent shakes and this sickness. Well Eddie Does. Far too often we’re presented with the picture of a supposed genius who can’t bathe herself or recognise the fact that he is otherwise screwing up at 100 MPH. But not this time. This time, our protagonist actually uses his new-found enhancement to address the negative side effects of his enhancement! He realises that he still needs to do little things like Eat Food, and Get Enough Sleep, and Not Drink, while he’s on NZT, because hunger, sleeplessness, too many other inebriating substances in the body keep the brain from being able to… work… good. Now, this obviously doesn’t solve the problem that if he stops taking NZT cold turkey it’ll kill him, but it shows us that it’s still definitely on his mind.

So, I’ve talked a lot about the plot of Limitless, so far, but that’s only part of what I want to talk to you about. I still want to talk about cyborgs and magic. So. Wait and don’t leave.

You see, originally, cyborgs were conceived of as medically and chemically enhanced humans who would be designed to more easily adapt to new environments and to make changes to their internal systems as needed. Much hay has been made about the foolishness of the need to consciously regulate systems which otherwise do just fine as autonomous functions, but that misses the point. It’s not about “having to” regulate them, but rather being able to, if you need or want to. That, at base, is what Limitless is about. It’s about taking the drive and the urge to become “better” and “more” into our own hands, and embracing that becoming. There is a particular scene in the film where the protagonist has to literally drink the blood of a fallen enemy in order to get at the drugs in his bloodstream. He has to drink his blood to gain his strength. More on this later; suffice it to say that he does this horrible, atrocious thing. Because it is the only option. It’s this or death now, and there’s no way in hell he’s going to die. So he adapts to survive, deciding that, if he’s going to go, he might as well go all the way.

This is Limitless asking you, “What’s your line? When is it all too much? You drink coffee don’t you? You take aspirin don’t you? You take B12 don’t you? You drink Red Bull don’t you? You take choline and acetylcholine supplements, don’t you? You could drink someone’s blood laced with the consciousness expanding drug which you literally need in order to live, couldn’t you?”

Because instead of allowing us to fall into the same old saws of “Drugs are bad” and “you’re not you when you’re enhanced!” Limitless forces us to face the questions, “Well when are you yourself? What modes of enhancement are acceptable?” and it refuses to send us off with easy answers. Yes, the film provides a resolution, but the questions are still there: Is Eddie really himself, or has he changed so much as to be a totally different creature? What is it about this kind of change that makes us scared of it? Not recognising ourselves? Not recognising others? Maybe it’s that if we change so fast that others can’t be so immersed in the process of that change so as to be changing along with us, then that change is jarring for them, and something’s “Different” about us, or people “don’t even know” us. But can’t we trace the steps and show them point for point where and how we got to be who we are today? Because that change isn’t drastic for us; it’s only shocking to others because they missed the steps.

Garret Dillahunt as John Henry in Sarah Connor Chronicles
Garret Dillahunt as the AI John Henry from The Sarah Connor Chronicles

And, at base, this is the nature of human enhancement and the current state of how a great many people are thinking about cyborgs. We are changing, adapting, integrating our tools and technology so fast that what makes us a cyborg today may only be what it means to be human tomorrow, and the choices we make will define the kinds of paths we can take, down the line.

Now, we’re going to talk about magic. At the very beginning of the film, Eddie describes the book he’s writing as “this kind of sci-fi utopia, but it’s actually about what it means to be an individual in the modern world,” or something similar, which, in effect, is him describing the film we’re watching, and everyone chuckles a little and we move on. But one of the first things he does when he takes that initial dose of NZT is finish his book, and he finishes it as a work of genius and care. This would seem to indicate that, in his mind, there is still this perfect utopia that needs to be rendered, this understanding of the role of the individual. This idea goes on to colour everything Eddie consciously does while taking NZT. He sets about creating the world that he has spent years imagining; he is bringing his thoughts into life and deed. But what is the structure of that thought? What is the nature of that life?

When we finally see the title of his book, we see that it’s called Illuminating The Dark Fields. The title of the novel from which Limitless is adapted is entitled The Dark Fields. Again, this might just seem clever, until we fully realise that the book that Eddie writes and publishes is the book that is the basis for the movie we are watching, is the basis for the life he is currently living. He has literally created the world in which he lives, while being created by that which he has created. The entire structure of the story is framed as a Self-Referential, Reflexive Meta-Narrative.

When asked why I look at cybernetic technologies and magical practice as being so intertwined, and I think this might be as close as I can get to it: Magicians and Cyborgs are both about being able to consciously approach reflexively adapting systems–thought, nature, society, etc–insert ourselves into them, and bootstrap ourselves into being/becoming, through that interface. They are about the discrete individual as a part of an interconnected system.

As I mentioned, by drinking the blood of the dead Russian mobster, Eddie shows that he is also willing to ritually transgress, in order to get what he needs. By crossing this final boundary between “acceptable” and “forbidden” behaviours, Eddie surpasses what he sees as arbitrary distinctions for the sake of creating a better world. And this isn’t merely him justifying his selfish and reprehensible actions; he actually is using this drug and the perspectives of other people around him to keep himself in check. He’s the shaman now, having answers and knowledge no one else has, but using it to give everyone what they need. Including the way to attain this for themselves.

The storytelling and theory in Limitless do have some problems. 1) They could have done a slightly better job explicating the conspiracy against Eddie, but I think part of the point was for us to put it together ourselves; that Atwood’s man killed the socialite in order to set Eddie up to need to go to the lawyer to beat the rap so the lawyer could steal the drugs to get them to Atwood. Eddie’s inability to see this plot was a testament to how wrong he was thinking about his situation and a crucial lesson.

2) There is very little driving information from a female perspective, in the course of the film, save Melissa and Lindy’s stances against Eddie’s using NZT. Melissa’s comes from knowing what it does to the body, and provides him valuable information about the drug. Lindy’s comes after she has to take it to save her own life (one of the most brilliant scenes in the film). But one can’t help but wonder, “Why not a female lead who wants to stay on NZT? Why only men?” Which leads us to:

3) So much of what Eddie does on NZT can feel like the standard male fantasies of money, sex, and power. We have to remind ourselves that Eddie is striving for a utopia, even if it’s briefly implied. He simply needs money, power, and focus in order to make it happen. The sex is… incidental? Still.

But even with those problems, Limitless succeeds, because–for the most part–it subverts these tropes and redirects their purposes.

By the time we reach the end of Limitless, we are confronted with an omniscient, near-omnipotent individual, a person who has used a drug to enhance his mind to the point of being able to figure out how to eradicate all of the ill-effects of the drug itself. So changed is Eddie, in fact, that he’s broken away from the need to use NZT at all anymore, because he’s altered its structure so as to have permanently altered himself. He’s retained all the physical and mental changes of the things he’s decided the learn and become, and he’s still working to change the world.

Eddie can see everything, he makes no apologies for being what he’s become, or for how he got here, and he has learned from all past mistakes–both his own and those of everyone else who took NZT. Because we should never forget this: Icarus’ problem was not that he flew too high, it was that he didn’t learn how to heat-proof the wax beforehand.


  • AWESOME review — now I’ve got to go see this.

    In exchange, a couple of suggestions for reading material. Both are Science Fiction: “Distress” by Greg Egan, and a duology “Signal to Noise” and “A Signal Shattered” by Eric S. Nylund.

  • Yesterday, I bought the extended/unrated DVD. There isn’t much difference. It solves some problems with pacing, which is nice but, in the end (so to speak), the only substantive difference was the Theatrical ending versus the Alternate. As with most things, I think a middle path between the two is probably the optimal

    In the course of the Theatrical Ending, Eddie makes it clear that he’s off the drug, that he doesn’t need it anymore, but that it has permanently changed the way he thinks. The speed and attentiveness with which he compiles and processes information is permanently at maximum. Because he put it there. He used the NZT to fix and tweak the NZT so that he would be able to do everything he needed, with no side effects, forever. He can literally Feel the damage to Van Loon’s heart, the failing of an aortic shunt. This is fabulous, but doesn’t tell us how Eddie gets to this point.

    In the Alternate Ending (spoilers follow), Eddie is still on the NZT, but he details to Carl Van Loon precisely the things he might do to get off it. The key line, here, is “Who says I can’t ask the drug how to get off the drug? There‘s a thought. Ask the drug how to tell the drug to fuck itself.” Which is, essentially what he has already done, when we see him in the theatrical ending, but, again, I like the explicit spelling it out; the fact that he is saying to this man who is trying to own him: “I will bootstrap myself into something more. What could you possibly do to touch me? What are you doing with yourself?”

    The middle place between these is a place that says, “I will use the context and content of my situation to do and become everything, and I’ll bear the scars and marks of the path I took.” It’s one which recognises that, if the thing which kills you also gives you godlike intelligence, maybe you ought to use the latter to fix the former.

    I like that path.

  • The fact he used the drug to do just that in the theatrical version (and will eventually in the alternate ending, apparently) is why I like this film so much. Too many films write themselves into a corner. You cannot become The Best There Is At What You Do and then get tripped up by something stupid You Should Have Seen Coming.

  • Exactly that. Especially if “what you do” is come to understand patterns, and to then Predict Events based on those patterns. And even more especially if one of these factors isn’t something you had to figure out, but something which was Told To You, At The Outset.

    Yeah, I’d have been pissed if this movie ended any other way than him coming to understand, or demonstrating that he Already Did understand that he would have to use the NZT to solve the problems of the NZT.