If you’ve seen the trailer, I won’t be spoiling anything for you if I tell you that the plot of “Limitless” revolves around—and around—the premise that a pill can rev up the brain to make use of its full potential. How? Well, it seems that everything you’ve ever sensed—every square inch of every book jacket you’ve ever half-glimpsed, every stray sensory object, every scene of every movie—reposes, shelved, secured, available for eventual reactivation on suitable stimulus.
Knowledge is power, “Limitless” claims, but the sort of knowledge the film enshrines, the value added, is additive. The more facts you know, the smarter you are, which means, the more you will impress your ex- and tycoons who like to surround themselves with day-traders. Siftings and winnowings, syntheses, combinations or extrapolations from the already known, and odd reassortments through new gateways don’t make it into the picture. Dots do not connect, though scraps are useful. Particles and lists are the whole story.
In this picture of knowledge, the template is Jeopardy, Trivial Pursuit, top-100 lists and the Guinness Book of World Records—or the Internet’s centerless depthlessness. A gangster who gets the hang of Google can master the universe. A couple of times, the script gestures knowingly toward “algorithms,” but these play no larger part in the plot than biorhythms. It’s the endless array of bits, data points, that constitutes the knowledge from which flows sex, wealth, and power, in that order.
But the model of knowledge that the film furthers is not just patterned on Jeopardy and the consumption of lists and trivia games. It not only resembles the Internet’s Babelian library of thin descriptions. It also resembles nothing so much as the contemporary shopping-mall university. Which is perhaps why the camera at one point grazes over a stack of books belonging to the blocked writer played by Bradley Cooper, and we make out two titles: Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and Barthes on Barthes. As if to say: Dystopia alert! But is the writer also saying, This is where narcissism brings you? Or, the arcana of criticism lead but to the grave?