Limitless < Flowers for Algernon.

Posted in life after cable by - March 24, 2011

“Limitless” is fun, provided you don’t think about it too much. Any scrutiny at all and it unravels like a cheap sweater.

“Limitless” is based on the tired old idea that you only use some small part of your brain. While I’m not Dr. House, I’m pretty sure no one serious thinks that any more. You may not use all of it at the same moment, or for the same thing, but it’s all there to get used.

Our hero takes a pill that allows him to use “all” of his brain, allowing him to effortlessly absorb languages, branches of science, musical theory. In case that wasn’t magical enough, he also suddenly has access to higher level functions – he writes a novel in four days, and figures out the stock market in a week.

That’s fun stuff to imagine. I’d love to learn without practice, to know without learning. The practical issues raised by that kind of instant learning gnawed at me, unfortunately, and kept me from disengaging enough to really enjoy myself. For example, being able to play the piano like Glenn Gould after a day or two makes it seem that musical greatness is entirely brain-based. No need to train the fingers, or the feet, or the ears. The only difference between stock market titans and your broke ass is their bigger brains. He even becomes Jason Bourne for a few minutes by remembering some low-budget martial arts films from his childhood. The fact that the fighting in those movies is stage fighting, or the fact that his body has zero practice executing the moves he’s contemplating merit no mention at all.

I have some innate distaste for the idea that all you need to get rich, happy and kick-ass is a bigger brain. It isn’t remotely true, but that’s not the only reason I recoil. I hate the way that notion caters to the smug country-club jerk in all of us. If I’m doing well, it’s because I’m so much smarter than everyone doing worse.

There’s some fun stuff in the third act, where we get some hints about other users of the magic pill. It’s also in this act that he begins to show the beginnings of a social conscience, once he’s sated all his carnal and material desires and lost a friend or two. Using his new powers for something larger than ego gratification (and only slightly, since it’s a run for political office) occupies only the last sliver of the film. Not to get all preachy, but the last thing the world needs is more geniuses, especially the terminally self-absorbed kind.

It’s not like I go to the movies expecting meaningful ideas. I have 21st century expectations of my popular entertainments. Even so, I couldn’t shake the idea that if you were really using your whole brain you would realize how little your petty desires and grudges mean in the larger schema. Any world where even total self-actualization provides almost no enlightenment is too depressing to imagine.

This post was written by MisterDee

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