Limitless is a successful 2011 thriller that leverages a unique concept to tell a compelling story. Bradley Cooper stars as a failed young author whose life changes dramatically when he begins taking a drug that enhances his cognitive abilities to nearly superhuman levels. As he continues to take the drug, what began as a casual experiment turns into a life-altering experience.
Of course, the movie doesn’t succeed simply on the strength of its concept alone. The film explores what a person might experience if they were to take this kind of substance. From a narrative perspective, it takes the viewer down a path that begins well for its protagonist, only to grow more complicated and intense as the benefits of using the drug give way to major consequences.
That said, the story alone isn’t the only factor transporting the viewer into the mind of Cooper’s character. The visual style of the film is also designed to provide the audience with a genuine sense of what they might see and feel if they were to take this substance.
That’s not an easy feat. Many filmmakers have experimented with ways of depicting the effects of various drugs on a person’s perception, with mixed results. This particular task was made even more difficult because the drug in the film does not actually exist. Director Neil Burger had to envision what a user’s experience would be, while also imagining an effective way to depict the experience in cinematic language.
The fact that he succeeded is one of many reasons why viewers reacted so positively to the film. Burger and his team place the audience directly into the character’s mind using a dynamic style that sets Limitless apart from so many other films like it.
Part of Burger’s approach involved making key cinematographic choices. In interviews, Burger explained that Cooper’s character at the beginning of the film lives in a drab world. The colors surrounding him reflect the grim reality of his life circumstances. He has failed in his career and lives in squalor. In addition, his girlfriend recently left him, and he is too depressed to even maintain his appearance. Burger filmed these scenes in a way that allows the character’s external world to mirror his internal experience.
Unique Visual Style
However, when the character begins taking the drug, his life improves. He begins to make more money and become more socially adept. Moreover, he is better able to take care of himself on a physical level. Again, Burger shot these later scenes accordingly. He ensured the light and colors were glowing in these scenes. He also chose lenses and camera movements for these scenes that differed from those used earlier in the film. As Burger described it, when the character first begins taking the drug, his life begins to run much more “smoothly” than before. The camera reflects this with “gliding” movements. Burger also chose to shoot these scenes with a wide-angle lense to reflect the visual and emotional experience a person would have when using this substance.
Again, this is one of the main reasons why Limitless stands out. When speaking about the visual style, Burger specifically said he wanted to avoid simply using CGI effects to make the world look different through the eyes of a character on this drug. A lesser director would not have taken the time to come up with a truly unique visual style to represent the nature of the character’s experience.
There are very practical reasons to put in this effort. For most major films, the audience is supposed to identify with the protagonist. Viewers will simply care much more about the experiences that the protagonist has if they feel like they are going along for the ride with them. That’s why it’s important to ensure the visual style of the film serves to put the audience in the character’s shoes. Burger has pointed out that this is so important to him that it’s often one of the first factors he considers when beginning work on a new project. For some movies, like realistic, grounded dramas, this aspect of the filmmaking process isn’t too demanding. For a film like Limitless, which begins in a realistic world but soon ventures into one that audiences are not familiar with, it can be very challenging.
Yes, there are many other reasons why Limitless works so well. Every member of the cast delivers a strong performance. The script not only features relatable characters, but it also has more than its fair share of twists and turns. The overall concept is appealing to viewers. However, if the visual style had been lacking, the movie would not have been as effective as it was. This is just more evidence that choosing the right director for a project is essential to successful filmmaking. Neil Burger and his team were the right choice because they ensured the film’s visuals lived up to the story’s potential.