Behold, I teach you the superman. Man is something to be overcome . . .
By taking one pill a day, preferably with food.
The quest for the Superman unites or even defines the final objective of the authentic Right. Most Radical Traditionalists believe in a lost Golden Age, when men were one with their gods before falling to corruption of blood, body, and spirit in the materialist and decadent Kali Yuga. Reactionary conservatives take inspiration from what they believe was a superior time. Men and women of faith strive towards the divine as experienced in moments of religious ecstasy or as portrayed in the finest art of Western Civilization. The aesthetics of the Right focus on strength, beauty, and excellence and artists like Arno Breker speak to its soul, the eternal striving ever upward. Through steely discipline, fanatical will, the deliberate plan of centuries or some mysterious working of the gods, we believe we can overcome ourselves, and become more than man through supreme sacrifice and effort.
But what happens if you could just get it at CVS? What if modernity gives us the Superman?
Limitless stars Bradley Cooper as Eddie Morra, a struggling writer in New York City. Cooper’s usual frat boy smirk is absent as the film begins, as Eddie Morra is about to commit suicide. A flashback to the beginning of the story shows Morra dumped by his girlfriend for being an underachiever and spending his days throwing himself around a squalid and filthy apartment he can’t even afford. Morra’s laptop sits forlorn on his desk, untouched, as he paces distractedly around the room, trying and failing to create so much as a page for his book contract. Filmed through a sickly blue lens, Morra shuffles around the decrepit city, another liberal arts graduate failure to launch poseur intellectual. He has nothing to offer the world and he’s a writer with nothing to say. He’s not a stupid, evil, or even lazy man – he’s just an ordinary loser.
This suddenly ends when he randomly encounters Vernon, the brother of his ex-wife and a drug dealer. Out of nostalgia and sympathy, Vern gives him a pill (NZT-48) that will allow him to use “all” of his brain. Morra takes it – and is suddenly transformed.
Of course, this unlikely scenario is one of several screenwriting blunders. How a random drug dealer happens to get a hold of the most significant product in world history is never satisfactorily explained. While in the original script “Vern” appears sophisticated and wealthy, the Vern of the film seems sketchy and disreputable – i.e. a drug dealer. Then there’s the likelihood of him randomly running into his ex-in law on the streets of New York City and gifting him with a wildly expensive narcotic. Luckily for us, we avoid having to deal with these questions as Vern is murdered the next day when Morra goes to get more. We never hear anymore from him – but not before Morra has found his stash of NZT and some cash.
Questionable plot points aside, Limitless is a visually interesting movie. When Morra takes the pill, the sickly blue wash is removed and the world is full of color and vitality. As Morra says when NZT first kicks in, “I was blind, but now I see.” The viewer senses and even experiences his sudden exhilaration. It’s like a deep breath of oxygen after suddenly emerging from underwater. The movie seems to go at a faster pace, as if the viewer took a hit as well. Cooper clearly enjoys the acting school exercise, changing his posture, pronunciation, and overall presence so we are a looking at a totally different person. After his first dose, Morra appeases and then seduces his landlord’s bitchy girlfriend, using recalled memories he didn’t even know he had. Post-coitus, he strides into his room, organizes his belongings, and suddenly pounds out the first section of his book in a burst of energy. “I know what I needed to do, and how do it.” If you watched the movie at home like I did, you might find yourself suddenly pausing it to clean your own room.
After Vern’s untimely death, Morra takes one pill a day and begins a rapid course of self-improvement. His conversation sparkles, and he seduces beautiful women and makes wealthy and stylish friends. He changes his appearance, with a new haircut, clothes, and workout regimen (learning new languages as he runs each day.) He finishes his book easily, learns the piano, travels with his new friends and forms valuable contacts. There’s the occasional sign of SWPL self-satisfaction, as “smart” Morra eats sensible salads rather than junk food and doesn’t smoke. “What would you do?” he asks.
What does the modern man do when he becomes superhuman? Morra actually does fairly well. He’s not especially objectionable. He isn’t some reality TV nightmare suddenly given superpowers, like a horrifying version of Honey Boo Boo with a 300 IQ. He does indulge in the ultimate fantasy of the dumped, presenting his ex with a radically improved version of himself showily speaking Italian at a fashionable restaurant, coolly emitting the aura of a man able to obtain any woman he wants. Nonetheless, rather than crushing the woman who dumped him, he happily takes her back and wants to use his new abilities to build a life with her.
While this speaks well of him, the new superman is rather disappointing. While Nietzsche wrote that the hallmark of the Übermensch was the transvaluation of all values and the living of life as a work of art, Morra doesn’t actually change himself in a deeper sense. He pursues knowledge, but mostly to show it off in cocktail conversation. He becomes more daring, but it is limited to the kind of juvenile tricks any normal young man loves, like driving fast or jumping from high places. He finishes his book, but then immediately puts aside his artistic ambitions, saying, “Suddenly I knew exactly what I needed to do. It wasn’t writing. It wasn’t books. It was much bigger than that.” What’s the new big thing? You may have guessed curing cancer, or developing cold fusion, or building a supercomputer, but it’s not. We’re never actually told what it is. However, the first step is making money through day trading.
To make money day trading, a budding capitalist requires capital, which Morra does not have. One would think that a materialist Übermensch would have a better idea of how to obtain money than going to a Russian gangster, but that would be a very boring movie. Even more baffling, after easily making millions more than he needs to pay back the loan, Morra simply ignores the gangster rather than settling the unpleasant business immediately. Somehow, he even manages to have the gangster steal one of his pills, which means that he spends much of the remainder of the movie being chased by super intelligent Russian gangsters desperate to obtain his supply. The movie simply asks for the viewer’s indulgence so the story can proceed – one doesn’t need NZT to see the problems here.
Morra ups his dosage and uses his enhanced intelligence to see through the stock market. He recognizes that the market is an exercise in mass psychology and is able to discern patterns that allow him to profit effortlessly. Word spreads, and Morra obtains an introduction with powerful investor Carl Van Loon (Robert De Niro). Off remarkably little information, Morra discerns Van Loon is contemplating a merger with Hank Atwood, a venture capitalist who has beaten Van Loon with unpredictable and brilliant investments in the past. Morra is asked to consult on the merger and he leaves happily – he “has his shot.”
While celebrating at nightclubs, Morra suddenly feels time slipping away, blacking out huge swaths of time. He has only scattered memories of talking to wealthy guests at various parities, having sex with a gorgeous blonde woman, somehow avoiding a random mugging, and remembering passing glimpses of a man in a tan jacket who seems to be following him. In a riveting shot, time and distance stretch forward as if the viewer is being pulled unwillingly from one time to another. He regains awareness disheveled and confused on top of a bridge the next morning.
Morra attends the meeting unprepared and off NZT. Distracted and uncomprehending, he is still able to realize that Atwood’s sudden emergence as a financial power was most likely a product of NZT. He also sees a television report about the murder of the blonde woman from the night before. Shocked that he may be the killer, he makes an excuse, vomits, and flees.
He looks up his ex-wife and learns about the inevitable side effects of NZT. Both the Russian and the mysterious man in the tan jacket continue to pursue him. Suffering from withdrawal, Morra is forced to beg his current girlfriend to retrieve his stash from her apartment. She is pursued by the man in the tan jacket and takes a pill in order to escape. The pill saves her life, but she is frightened of everything it represents. Once again, she leaves Morra.
Morra is running a race against time to develop a sustainable solution while the walls are closing in. He has to deal with the Russian, avoid the man in the tan jacket, negotiate a corporate merger, and somehow keep the news that he is a murder suspect away from his new corporate colleagues. The obvious lesson here is the danger of rocketing to the top “artificially” without paying one’s dues through hard work and sacrifice. Van Loon makes the point explicit when he calls Morra a freak that will destroy himself unless he goes through at least some of the same experiences as those who have earned it.
What should happen is the certain collapse of our heroic protagonist for trying to cheat the laws of nature. This is precisely what happens in Alan Glynn’s The Dark Fields, the source material for Limitless. The defeated protagonist realizes with horror that the President is on NZT, and that a corporation is using the drug to control the world. The original script is more ambiguous but shares the overall thrust of the novel, with Eddie Morra seemingly overcoming the obstacles in his path, only to learn that Carl Van Loon controlled the pharmaceutical company making the drug and is tracking the people being given the pills. It’s also strongly implied that Morra did murder the blonde woman, that Van Loon knows about it, and that this knowledge will be used to essentially keep Morra as a high functioning slave.
The movie radically breaks from this ending, providing the audience with a superficially “happy Hollywood” ending, but ultimately a more thought provoking one. Morra ends up on the brink of defeat, about to commit suicide. The elite criminal defense attorney that he hired to keep away the murder charge steals his pills so he is all but helpless. When the Russians break into his apartment, Morra manages to murder the NZT addicted boss and drink his blood in order to obtain the last accessible bit of the precious drug. Outsmarting the other Russian hitmen, he escapes and finds that fellow NZT addict Hank Atwood has died from withdrawal, betrayed by the same attorney. The man in the tan jacket had been working for Atwood, but with Atwood’s death, he has no reason to try to murder our hero anymore. Together, they take out the attorney and Morra obtains the stash he needs. “It was all still possible,” he tells us.
Twelve months later, Morra’s book is a best seller, he is coasting to a victory as a United States Senator, and he is suffering no ill effects of the drug. Van Loon has found out about his secret and destroyed his lab, but, in contrast to the original ending, he has not been behind it the entire time and is simply trying to get in the game late. Morra easily rebuffs Van Loon’s attempt at intimidation, demonstrating he’s “fifty moves ahead of you and everyone else,” sensing that Van Loon is dying of heart disease, claiming he has other labs, and boasting he is off the drug entirely, having learned how to gain all the benefits with none of the side effects. Van Loon drives off humiliated and defeated, and Morra strolls to lunch at an Asian restaurant with his old girlfriend, who has come back to him again. He speaks Chinese to the waiter, implying that he may still be on the drug.
While Cooper says the ending is ambiguous, it doesn’t really matter. Even if he is lying about still on the drug, he has found a way to use it and ensure a steady supply without suffering blackouts. While the interwebs still wonder if Morra is in fact a murderer, it’s implied in this version that the man in the tan jacket committed the crime. Either way, Morra has gotten away with everything. The film essentially ends with his total victory.
Critics who wanted to see Morra fall miss the point. He may be, in the words of one critic, a “chemical fraud,” but what difference would it make in this world? Morra does literally have to drink the blood of a slain enemy, but the bulk of his accomplishments come from his magic pills. The larger agenda behind them and who else is taking them is never explained. Cosmic justice is never served. But why should it be, when it so rarely is in the real world?
If a pill could truly expand someone’s intelligence and focus, the possibilities are, if I can be forgiven, limitless. Intelligence builds on itself, so a smart person could easily reverse engineer medication that less enhanced people managed to create in order to remove the side effects. No strategist or even a combination of geniuses could possibly outwit or outplan someone with superhuman intelligence. While it would be more satisfying to see Morra collapse, there’s no reason to believe it would actually happen, nor can modern critics justifiably claim discomfort with the concept of such a pill.
American society already celebrates “chemical frauds” as great human achievers. The myth of Lance Armstrong as a great comeback hero is collapsing as this is written, as his former teammates turn on him to admit he used blood doping. This isn’t surprising, as it is increasingly clear that steroids, blood doping, and other banned substances and techniques are absolutely required to perform at the highest levels of sport. Essentially, sport at the highest level is simply an exercise in pharmaceutical management and beating drug tests. Everyone is doing it, and only a few get caught.
In intellectual and professional fields, students and white-collar workers frantically consume performance-enhancing drugs such as Adderall without a prescription in order to cram for exams or meet a deadline. Morra’s comment of “I know what I needed to do and how to do it” is similar to the feeling this writer had after taking (nonprescribed) Adderall during finals at university, easily compensating for a semester of neglect within an evening. If there were no side effects, I would take such a pill every day without hesitation, reaping the rewards of enhanced productivity. In a mild sense, just about everyone does this, as there are few who begin a hard day’s work at the office or in the study without coffee or tea. A motley tribe of Radical Traditionalists, anarcho-primitivists, or the extremely health conscious may take care to avoid all artificial stimulants or chemicals, but mass society has already made the choice for an “artificial” life.
What matters most is not the chemical stimulation, but the value system that underlies what these superhuman efforts are directed towards. According to an article promoted by American Renaissance, doctors in the inner cities are prescribing drugs such as Adderall to minority youths precisely because they are unable to function in schools on their own. One doctor proudly proclaims his efforts in the service of “social justice.” Much like the “anti-racism pill” that was supposedly discovered, it’s easy to imagine “medicine” being used to enforce egalitarianism and social justice with ever increasing fanaticism. Drugs that could be used to enhance humanity would actually be directed towards actively holding it back and reinforcing left wing social norms. While we might point out there is a contradiction inherent in using artificial enhancement to push egalitarianism, it would never occur to the prosperous, educated SWPL’s that even today pursue status while preaching equality.
Eddie Morra and Limitless avoid left wing talking points, though the film does take care to show our hero engaged in various sexual activities with nonwhite women. However, Morra never really accomplishes something great with his new powers. Neither does anyone else. Atwood goes into finance capital, and then dies. Morra’s ex-wife gets a better paying job, before succumbing to the side effects and becoming a burnout. The Russian criminal simply becomes a more effective gangster. Morra is actually the most ambitious of the bunch because he becomes a politician, after quickly churning out his book. It’s implied that he wants to “shake up the Free World” and help people, and his book is entitled “Illuminating the Dark Fields – Mapping the American Psyche.” However, the audience is never actually told what he wants to do, what his book says, or why he cares about being a Senator. Instead, he seems to be following a slightly modified version of Scarface – first you get the money, then you get the power, then you get your old girlfriend back.
Money and politics are pursued because they are ends in themselves, ways of enhancing his status within the value system of the existing society. While his concern with his girlfriend shows that Morra is not some kind of sociopath, he’s not really an extraordinary man either. He’s simply a super intelligent normal person, performing at a higher level to more efficiently acquire pointless belongings and implement (presumably) the same kinds of policies the government already has in place.
Despite the confident predictions of “archeofuturism,” there are no signs that the Collapse will be upon us anytime soon. Even as Americans adjust to the new normal of a sluggish economy, technology and medicine will continue to advance as long as there is money to be made. iPhones will continue to become faster, computers will grow ever more powerful, and research into the workings of the human brain will continue apace, especially as more than a third of Americans live their lives on one kind of a drug or another. While the sedentary lifestyle and horrific diets of most Americans overwhelm even the most effective pharmaceuticals, it may not always be so.
Pop scientist Michio Kaku writes confidently that the “power of the gods” will be ours within the century – and he may be right. It can be argued that a chemically enhanced life, free from struggle or the need for self-discipline, is no worthy life at all and we should flee to the woods and wage revolution from the periphery in defiance of such a fate. While a noble sentiment, Radical Traditionalists have to at least acknowledge the terrifying possibility that it may be technologically feasible for even the most woefully ignorant urban denizen to artistically increase intelligence and concentration to the point that the most disciplined intellectual will be no match for him. The “happy” ending of Limitless works because it stands by the disturbing implications of intelligence in a pill.
Nonetheless, as an overall film, it fails. There are too many coincidences that don’t make sense, no growth in the characters, and no actual purpose to the entire experience. Of course, a lot of life and a lot of people are similarly pointless. Limitless is a visually interesting thought experiment that is still worth seeing, despite its plot holes.
That said, to Radical Traditionalists, it could be the ultimate nightmare. The future may give us a world where people have superhuman abilities to alternately pursue pointless materialism or push a degraded culture. A simple glimpse at the liberal arts departments of our major universities should dissuade anyone from the notion that high IQ automatically leads to healthy aesthetic, political, or moral judgments. The real lesson of Limitless is that while modernity may eventually give us a degraded superman, the Revolt Against the Modern World never ends, even if we have to use its own weapons. Modern man, even if he has a 500 IQ, is still something to be overcome.