Saturday, 26 March 2011


An unexpected (and free) cinema trip on Wednesday brings you all an unexpected (and still free) film review. Limitless is a speculative thriller starring Robert De Nero and Bradley Cooper, about a failed writer who has his life utterly turned around by a drug that allows him to access the eighty percent of his brain that is usually inactive, turning him from a useless slob pretending to write a sci-fi novel into an absolute genius in about thirty seconds.

Limitless wins two massive gold stars from me straight away because I am both a (failing) writer and fascinated by the idea of anything that allows us to tap into our latent creativity/brainpower. I suppose the two go hand in hand; artists are always struggling against themselves, writers block, the hassle of living and various other excuses, so an ability to magically do-away with those excuses and actually do all the things we want to do with our creativity is bound to appeal to us. I for one have about a dozen stories of varying lengths that I’d love to write and more being generated all the time, but only about half of them have even been started yet, let along are anywhere near completion. What I would give to be able to just sit down and write without getting distracted and without floundering over what exactly to write.

And that’s exactly the point. What would I give? The Fantasy podcast I plugged a month or so back,
PodCastle recently ran a story called State Change, which also touched on this in passing. The premise of the story was that each person’s soul was represented by an object individual to that person. One of the characters mentioned in passing had a candle for a soul, which she lit whenever she needed inspiration. Of course, burning the candle uses up some of it. We never actually see what happens when the candle burns down. Limitless imposes a similar catch – once you start taking the pill, you can’t stop. If you do, your body shuts down and you die. You can’t take too many of the pills, or go too long without food or drink excessively, or your mind goes into overdrive and you wake up having lost several hours/days of your life with no memory of what you did.

It would be nice if this dilemma was at the heart of the film. If the question of just how far you would go to continue being a genius was the conflict that drove the plot, but it wasn’t. As I said, it’s a thriller. You see, our hero, Eddie, doesn’t buy the pills, he steals them. And the people he stole them from want them back. Several other people also want them, because let’s face it, who wouldn’t? Of course, as a genius, he can usually handle them, until he starts running out and needs to find some more.

The film doesn’t even focus on what the pills mean for an artist and what they can do to inspiration. Eddie writes a novel in four days at the start of the film, but soon turns to the stock market and ends up working for Carl Van Loon (Robert De Nero), a powerful businessman. I suppose Eddie finds writing so easy after taking the pills, that there’s really no point in exploring it too much – there isn’t much left to explore. Even so, the turn to the world of finance does seem like a strange move for a failing writer to make. It completely and dramatically shifts the tone of the film in a way that is somewhat jarring. His entrance into finance is initially explained by the fact that he has a plan for something big that he needs money for, but that just gets left by the wayside.

Actually a fair bit gets left by the wayside through the course of the film. Eddie finds his ex brother-in-law dead, but there seems to be no hint of a police investigation into what, exactly, he was doing there. He’s also accused (possibly rightly) of murder, but nothing comes of that. After possibly killing someone and almost dying, he promises to come off the drugs, which he never shows any interests in doing. There were actually quite a few little plot-holes and loose-ends that were never really tied off, which seems very sloppy indeed.

In fact I would go as far as to say that, in parts, this story was pretty badly written. For a start, the first two thirds had one of the most pointless narrations I have ever heard. Almost everything that was told to us in the narration was shown to us onscreen at the same time. The little bit that was not immediately shown to us could have been, with a little effort.

I’ve mentioned a number of times that I really dislike narration in films, so it’s past time I explained why. Films are, at heart, a visual medium. We watch films; we don’t listen to or read them. When applied to film, the mantra ‘show; don’t tell’ means that, as much as possible, a film should use visual cues to show the viewer what we are supposed to gather from a certain scene, rather than telling them with written word or narration. The viewer is not stupid, (s)he can work out what is happening if those visual cues are done well enough. There are some instances were it is necessary, such as if there is some kind of story within a story being told, where one of the main characters is narrating the story over the top of the visuals. However, it should be used sparingly, as something that goes against the norm, rather than being the norm.

So, between pointless, patronising narration and unresolved plot-threads left unsatisfactorily hanging every now and then, Limitless is not a triumph of screenwriting. It is a triumph of cinematography, however. Once Eddie has taken the pill, the entire film literally lights up; the aesthetic goes from being a dreary, dull, colourless misery to being vibrant, energetic and colourful. This aesthetic shift is, in some ways, rather jarring, but it’s still very effective. Even more effective is the way in which the camera shifts to take in a much wider view and the editing becomes much sharper and faster. This builds up to the extremely impressive breakdown about half way through the film, which involves some fantastic and very confusing sequences.

This complete mental breakdown from abuse of the drugs and the after-effects of it are really a turning point. Up until that point I’d been really enjoying the film. It seems as though Eddie had experienced the all-time low that shows him that something has to change. I would have expected some kind of realisation of his faults and a subsequent change in character. It’s one of the principle character arcs upon which a story can rest. However the arc almost got to the end then broke down. Rather than Eddie moving on and learning something concrete about himself from his experiences, he simply changed the way he was acting slightly, became somewhat more moderate and continued in the exact same vein. The plot stopped being driven by him and started being driven by other characters. This is where I really started to loose the story. I could forgive the pointless narration and the odd unresolved issue, if the story had given me a satisfying character study with a resolution that worked. The character development stopped, however and the film became a run-of-the-mill thriller with two dimensional characters and an uninspiring plot.

The ending of the film was particularly disappointing. Eddie seemed not to have really learned from his experience. The conflict that had underlain the rest of the story had disappeared without any decent resolution. Eddie had all the benefits, but none of the drawbacks, and he’d not had to really do anything to achieve it. The thing that had made the story interesting and the thing that had made Eddie an interesting character were both gone, but this all happened after the main story arc was over and done with. It was all done through a massive Deus Ex Machina that left a very sour taste in the mouth.

Limitless is worth seeing, especially given that there’s bugger all out at the moment, but it doesn’t get close to the list I posted last week. Excellent cinematography and a fantastic concept was let down by some poor writing and a really shoddy ending. The thing that bugs me about this film is that it could have been really excellent. With a very small amount of effort it could have at least been very good. As it is, it’s merely decent, not bad, ok, mediocre. It had a hell of a lot of potential, but really didn’t live up to much of it. So many missed opportunities and unexplored possibilities.

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