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Transhumanist Media: Limitless March 20, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Transhumanism.
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As transhumanism moves farther and farther into the mainstream we are beginning to see more explicit examples of the philosophy in the mass media.  While very few of them actually refer to their subject matter as such the influence of the transhumanist movement on much of modern science fiction is hard to discount.  Last year gave us three movies that dealt with the possibility of mind-machine interfaces and one of them, James Cameron’s Avatar, ended up being one of the biggest hits of the year and a Best Picture nominee.

Limitless is a movie that definitely crosses into transhumanist territory even if it never explicitly uses that word, examining one of the corner stones of modern transhumanist futurism in the possibility and ramifications of intelligence enhancement.  Starring Bradley Cooper as an aspiring (read unemployed) writer who through a twist of fate ends up with the hottest new drug being primed to hit the market: a pill that can increase a person’s intellect to unnatural levels.  With a stash in hand Cooper decides to do what I assume many of us would if we found ourselves instantly turned into the smartest man on the planet; he joins a Wall Street firm and proceeds to make himself obscenely wealthy.  Of course if this was all there was to the movie it would be pretty damn boring so no bonus points for guessing that the drug quickly turns out to have side effects that reek havoc with Cooper’s new found prosperity.

Let me say that I definitely think Limitless is a good movie.  The acting is uniformly good including a nice turn by Robert de Niro as a powerful and dangerous Wall Street executive.  The cinematography is particularly noteworthy with some brilliant use of color and tone to differentiate Cooper’s up moments while on the drug to his down moments at all other times.  If the film has a problem, and it does, it’s that its not nearly as deep as it seems to think it is or want to be.

Lets start with the basic premise.  The movie’s explanation for the drug’s amazing ability is that it allows an average person, who only uses 20% of their brain, to access the other 80% and utilize their full capabilities.  No, really.  I seriously hope that no one in the audience or on the script team actually believes that old urban legend but that fact that the use it as their basis is not very inspiring.

Secondly is what the drug actually does.  Though the film is very hazy on the details (this is soft sci-fi through and through) it appears to be some sort of super stimulant, a sort of Ritalin on steroids if you’ll pardon the expression.  It allows the user to concentrate on their tasks at an almost supernatural level, gives them access to every memory they have ever had including ones they can’t remember when off the drug and gives powers of deductive reasoning that make Sherlock Holmes look like Sarah Palin.  Disregarding the fact that the film never explains how the drug does all this to any sort of satisfaction (again, soft sci-fi) my big problem is that the effects of the drug seem limited only to his intelligence.  Outside of developing a severe case of narcissism there seems to be no effect on a persons personality or emotional intelligence.  Now of course analytic intelligence is  a distinct feature I personally find it hard to believe that such a major change in one facet of a person would not produce a similarly major change in other facets.

Those who have seen the movie will probably think I’m being overly critical towards it and in many ways I am.  Its not 2001 or Blade Runner and it really isn’t trying to be so if you go in expecting an interesting story briskly told then you should walk out feeling like you got your moneys worth.  Finally I will say that despite spending a good portion of its screen time on the dangers of intelligence enhancement the film ends on what is almost a positive endorsement of the idea.  SPOILER WARNING: though he has to give up the drug due to the negative side effects he tinkers with the formula and develops a safer version that allows him to stop taking it and retain his newfound mental acumen.  In a time when so much science fiction is about how new technologies will destroy us that ending is enough for me to support the film.



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