Limitless is a 2011 science fiction thriller film starring Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, and Abbie Cornish. A success with both critics and audiences, it grossed more than $161 million worldwide against a budget of $27 million and spawned a TV series. Since the film’s release, viewers have continued to discover (and rediscover) its appeal. What accounts for its enduring success?
As always, many different factors come into play. That said, the following points help to illustrate how Limitless managed to resonate so effectively with audiences.
Limitless tells the story of Eddie Morra, played by Bradley Cooper. Eddie is a struggling writer living in New York City. He can’t finish his novel (in fact, he can barely start it), his longtime girlfriend has dumped him, and he’s behind on rent.
All that changes when Eddie comes into possession of a powerful drug which, for a brief period of time, substantially boosts his brain power. When Eddie is on the drug, NZT, he can finish his book in record time, quickly evaluate the potential payoff of investments, and charm almost anyone.
It’s a smart formula for a story. Limitless gives the audience a character who starts out in a situation that is all too familiar for many. Plenty of people can relate to Eddie’s struggles. Many of those very same people would also love to find a magic pill that turns them into geniuses. This aspect of escapist wish fulfillment is a big part of the film’s charm.
Superhero movies often resonate with adolescents by telling young viewers that ordinary kids like them can develop powers that will make them stronger and faster than anyone else. Limitless, in some ways, is like a superhero movie for adults. And, like any good movie for adults, it doesn’t shy away from complexity.
When Eddie first begins taking NZT, life changes quickly for him. He makes millions off the stock market, earns the admiration of his publisher with an outstanding manuscript, and wins back his girlfriend.
Limitless gives us a character who is truly thriving. To make the film as interesting as possible, it must then punish that character with the type of conflict that threatens to undo all his success.
Eddie soon learns that he must continue taking NZT or suffer from debilitating withdrawal symptoms that could damage his health permanently. Unfortunately, he only has a limited supply. He also needs to evade a violent criminal who got his own taste of NZT and wants more.
Then there’s the fact that mysterious men in trench coats, seemingly intent on harming Eddie, have begun following him throughout the city.
Eddie also blacks out for almost an entire night. A news report, coupled with his own fragmented memories of the evening, lead him to suspect that he may have committed murder.
Plenty of movies put their characters in precarious, sometimes desperate situations. Limitless thrusts its protagonist into several. After entertaining the audience with the wish-fulfilling first act, the film then builds tension—and keeps piling it up.
Casting the role of Eddie Morra could not have been easy. The filmmakers needed an actor who could be believable as both a slacker and a genius. Eddie’s transformation into a brilliant, charming character wouldn’t be effective if the audience didn’t accept him as a failure in the early scenes of the film.
Bradley Cooper proved to be the perfect choice. Throughout his career, he’s played unlikeable villains (Wedding Crashers), trustworthy allies (Alias), and charismatic jokesters (The Hangover).
Remember, this was before Cooper established himself as a genuine acting superstar with roles in films like Silver Linings Playbook and American Sniper. The filmmakers cleverly saw that he could shift from one personality to another. Many actors adapt a certain type of personality to different characters; Cooper can become a different type of person.
Robert De Niro, on the other hand, has been Hollywood royalty for years, of course. For the part of Carl Van Loon, the greedy finance tycoon who enlists Eddie’s help to boost his investments, the filmmakers needed someone who had nothing to prove.
Eddie, after all, is just learning what it’s like to be successful. He’s not entirely confident yet. Carl, however, has been successful for most of his life. The filmmakers found an actor whose very career gave him the necessary intimidating presence.
Limitless treats its audience like adults. It depicts the highs of NZT, followed by the lows of addiction, paranoia, and death. Yet, at the end of the film, it doesn’t feel as though the filmmakers talked down to the viewer. We’re left asking ourselves if, despite everything Eddie went through, we still wouldn’t try NZT for ourselves.
That’s how you make a movie stay with people. You don’t always have to tell them how to feel. Sometimes, it’s much smarter to leave them with more questions than answers.
And of course, the film’s appeal also lies in a more fundamental quality—it delivers fast-paced entertainment that’s just plain fun to watch.