Friday, March 25, 2011

“Limitless” ... the movie review this blog has been waiting for.

So apparently there’s a full length motion picture about my research.  It’s called “Limitless” and it stars Bradley Cooper and Robert DeNiro.  It hit theatres last week to consistently lukewarm acclaim (currently 66% on Rotten Tomatoes).
I first caught wind of this development about a year ago, when my roommates Erik and Conrad got teamed up with Andrew Howard for 9 holes of golf at Griffith Park.  (Howard played an Eastern European goon, arguably the movie's main bad guy).  He told them about his current project at the timve—a movie about a miracle brain drug that grants super cognitive powers and turns lives around.
They came home and said “Dude, I think they’re making a movie about your dissertation …”
And sure enough, the film is pretty much right on target.  Let’s get something straight: it is fiction—almost science fiction.  But it’s set in the current day, and any scientific leaps are well disguised so that credibility isn’t an issue where it affects the enjoyment of the movie … (except for perhaps a couple places that I will NOT mention, but I research phenomena specifically related to neurocognitive enhancement, so I might be a tough critic when it comes to the science behind some of the fiction).
A week ago at the NASPA conference in Philadelphia, I played the trailer for “Limitless” off YouTube as people were sifting into my session.  I’ve never seen a presentation NASPA or any other conference with movie trailers, but it seemed to go over well.  I couldn’t claim that the movie was any good or not, just that—based on the trailer—there seemed to be a 99% chance that it related to the ensuing presentation and discussion.  And indeed, it did.
After seeing the movie this morning, I give “Limitless” a solid 6/10 just as a movie experience to a lay audience.  Not groundbreaking entertainment, but enjoyable.  If you are not a 30-something social science researcher and drug behavioralist, that’s about what you will think of this movie.  I wish I could give it more because I want everybody I know to see it.
Because for me personally, I absolutely loved “Limitless” and give it a 10/10.  I tend to strongly root for any media product that pushes my topic more toward the mainstream, and “Limitless” is the ultimate manifestation of the modern “enhancement” dilemma.
Not just is it totally about my research, but there were serious moments where I thought that this movie might be about me, specifically.  It’s set in New York, where I was recently and have an affinity for.  Bradley Cooper’s character Eddie Mora is a stressed out writer with medium-length hair, stubble, and insecurities about his career and relationship prospects. [1.]
Then he gets the drug.
The drug in “Limitless” is something called MDT, a brand-new prototype designer drug originating from a foggy confluence of the pharmaceutical industry and street chemists.  Whatever the source, the small pills are translucent and look like the tiny, rubber tabs that you stick on the insides of IKEA desk drawers to keep them from slamming.
The effects of MDT—which I would swear was NCT or NZT when the actors talked about it, yet according to IMDB, it’s MDT—last about a day per pill, and it is awesome.
Theoretically, MDT represents the ultimate nootrope.  On it, users can recall any information they’ve ever seen, instantly grasp concepts, harness complete creative control—basically perform any mental function perfectly and quickly.
The pusher in the movie claims that the human brain normally operates at only 20% capacity (I’d like to see a footnote on that …), and that MDT allows the brain to access the optimal 100%.  In high school I took Ritalin and felt a little bit more alert and confident studying for AP Bio, but nothing like a five-fold increase with photographic retention and recall.
A single dosage of MDT is worth $800.  Adderall usually goes for around $5 on most college campuses.
Side effects of MDT include: awesomeness, violence, balling out of control, occasional prostitute murder, severe psychological dependence, severe withdrawal and crash, sickness, and death.  It may or may not also make you sort-of a ninja.
I really can’t say anything more without spoiling the plot, but since I haven’t really talked about the plot at all, I think we’re safe.
From a psychological research perspective, I love this movie because it does a great job of laying out all of the key devices in a way that effectively comes to represent the ultimate existential crisis we face neurochemical enhancement technologies.
In other words, there are real psychological constructs at play in this movie, particularly psychological dependence/reliance.  Are we the same people when we’re on drugs?
We tell troubled addicts that they are not the same when they’re on drugs.  This can be dear friends, family, or just people we know.  Alcohol and drugs are a problem for them.  And they know it’s a problem for them—neither they nor others want them to be on drugs because it’s a problem.
But therein lies the dilemma with enhancement.  Outwardly, nobody knows if there’s a drug “problem” because the problem manifests in success with work, school, or relationships.  Nobody cares if you’re the same person on drugs or not, because that person kicks ass.
Only you know—or wonder—if you’re the same person on drugs.  Maybe you even think you’re a better person on drugs.
Most of the drugs I study (mostly stimulant meds like Ritalin and Adderall) are strong enough that they create this dilemma among users.  And most college students who participated in my study are young, still developing their identities, and sometimes don’t know where to attribute their academic successes: to the self, or medicated-self?
“Limitless” represents the ultimate existential dilemma of enhancement in society, partly because MDT represents the ultimate drug.  The life of Eddie Mora is the perfect stage for these drug-related tradeoffs to play out.
SPOILER ALERT:  My only problem with the movie is that the answer to every crisis or every plot pickle is … more drugs!  Need to finish that novel quickly?  Better take drugs.  Thugs chasing you through Central Park?  Drugs!  Goons crashing your apartment to murder you?  More drugs!
[End spoiler alert ... probably].
However, as a society, our increasing pharmacological reliance is also problematic—we have better drugs to help us from worse drugs, and more drugs to alleviate more problems.
So as a movie, I wish that MDT wasn’t the solution to everything.  It’s too much like the invincibility star in Mario Bros. or like spinach to Popeye—once it’s on, it’s on—goombas and Bluto stand no chance.  No surprises, ever.
The only suspense seems to come when the panacea is no longer available.  Then what?
That was probably the most difficult question I asked stimulant-using college students: “when do you plan to stop taking Concerta?  What would happen if you suddenly no longer had access to Focalin?”  There are drawbacks to feeling limitless.  And as a movie making a statement about the limits of enhancement, I really enjoyed “Limitless.”
10/10 for me personally ... 6/10 for everybody else.

Correction (3.28.11) : I had previously, erroneously, reported that Erik and Conrad's fateful golf pairing was with two production assistants on "Limitless" ... I received very prompt clarification from both of them, that it was instead key actor Andrew Howard, who turned in a fine performance as—essentially—Niko Bellic from Grand Theft Auto IV.  Still waiting for the correction from Mr. Howard that they swing a golf club like Charles Barkley.

1. Nobody else?  Just me?  Is somebody in Hollywood reading my dream journal?  At the early-bird matinee of the Century Redwood City 20 this morning, I even had the coffee pangs, stubble, and corduroy jacket of a pre-superdrug Eddie Mora.  The similarities were comical.  I laughed many times out loud at inappropriate moments, much to the bewilderment of the dozen or so other thrifty moviegoers in the audience with me.