(The following contains spoilers for the movie Limitless.)
I recently watched Limitless on Netflix. The movie centers around Eddie Morra and his chance discovery of a drug that augments mental abilities. As a fellow viewer pointed out to me, while Inception is a simple epistemological mind-teaser, Limitless raises more fundamental and practical questions.
Morra is an aspiring writer who seems to suffer from an inability to accomplish much of anything at all. He's several months behind on his book contract, having yet to write a single word. His personal life is no better either, with his longtime girlfriend moving out, leaving him with no financial support. He spends his days lagging about, hoping to stumble upon some sort of inspiration. His physical appearance, an important theme throughout the movie, is self-described as that of a homeless man or drug addict. (This latter description is perhaps ironic.)
Circumstances change--dramatically--when Morra meets his dubious ex-brother in law, Vernon. He offers Morra a sample of an "FDA approved" drug, NZT, that promises to turn his life around. Desperate, Morra downs the pill.
The drug affects an incredible change, similar to Liquid Luck in Harry Potter. Suddenly Morra's intellect is working in overdrive. Yet it is not an uncontrollable rush of ideas. His now tumescent mind is paired with the ability to perceive the necessary means to achieve his goals--whatever they might be.
The effect is conveyed through lighting techniques and lensing distortions. The world of Morra moves from bleak, drab and astigmatic, to vibrant, vivid and panoramic, and switching between the two as Morra is subsequently on and off the drug. The intended message is clear: when on NZT, Morra is fully alive.
Everything in Morra's life seems to become better, at least in terms of efficiency. Among other things, such as an ever improving, well-groomed appearance, Morra finishes his entire book in what appears to be less than a few days. In a similarly brief amount of time, he becomes fluent in several languages. Soon he becomes an incredible day trader, turning a paltry sum into millions. This attracts the attention of financial kingpin Carl Van Loon, and it isn't long before Morra is brokering a merger between two enormous companies.
Much of the movie is spent this way. Morra is increasingly successful at everything he does, and his life turns into one thrill of success after another. But why should we find that appealing? It's not as if the drug enhanced his moral capacities. He's the same person he was before, simply much more efficient. Efficiency is only good if it's applied to a good process. Yet Morra is using his new-found powers for nothing other than his own agenda.
NZT users are essentially frauds. The drug enhances the mental abilities of everyone who uses it, indiscriminately it seems. At one point a thuggish loan shark manages to get access to the drug. Before his demise at the hands of Morra, the criminal's intellectual rise, and its attendant ambition, seems as meteoric as Morra's. We hear of another individual who has taken the drug and become as wildly successful as Morra. Without NZT, Morra would still be an unaccomplished nobody, his mind and life an inchoate morass of ill-discipline.
There is an important scene near the end where Loon tries to impress upon Morra that he can offer the rising star things that can only be earned by the hard, tedious work of grubbing up the coporate ladder year after year. While Loon's ingratiation is for selfish ends, his appeal to hard work and perseverance--more generally what we would call character development--makes obvious the deficits in Morra's new life.
The drug has its side-effects, of course. Morra learns that everyone who has ever taken it is either dead, dying or suffering crippling mental problems. Morra himself begins to blackout, being unable to account for his whereabouts for stretches of time. NZT is also addictive, for what seems to be both psychological and physiological reasons, and Morra doesn't have the moral fortitude to quit.
The ending is markedly weak. The drug use doesn't catch up with Morra. Rather, we learn that he discovered the methods necessary to distill the negative and positive effects of NZT. In some of the final shots of the movie, Morra is running a highly successful campaign for the Senate, and it's implied he has what is necessary to attain the most powerful office in the world--that of President.
Morra's life should have ended as it did for everyone else who took the drug. Instead, he defies reality and achieves everything he sets his heart to, even if everything he does is fundamentally selfish.
But why would the producers refuse a realistic ending? That would despoil the illusion. After all, what else is the secular dream, but to use God's gifts without consequence, and supplant the divine with our own purposes.
Morra will eventually die like everyone else. Though he has become the most splendid of all roses, the Christian remains the amaranth, destined alone to be the eternal blossom.
"For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?"