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IMAGE: Bradley Cooper in "Limitless"
Relativity Media
In "Limitless," Bradley Cooper plays a struggling writer who turns to an illegal mind-enhancing drug to finish his novel and make millions on the stock market -- but there are bloody side effects. While science does have drugs that affect the brain, Cooper's pill is still just a fantasy.
By
TODAY contributor
updated 3/7/2011 6:27:29 PM ET 2011-03-07T23:27:29

When it comes to science-fiction movies, the fiction tends to trump the science. And that can be just fine — movies are supposed to be entertaining, and nothing saps the joy out of them more quickly than complaining that there's no sound in space, so the Death Star should've exploded in total silence. You've got to meet the movie halfway. But it's also hard to do that unless the filmmakers give you some plausible reason to believe that tyrannosaurs could be resurrected, or Captain Kirk could beam himself up.

We looked at a half-dozen recent movies — including the new thriller "Limitless," out March 18 — to see how their science stacked up, and whether their near-future inventions would be anything we'd actually want to see in real life.

Brain enhancement, as seen in 'Limitless'
In "Limitless," Bradley Cooper (from "The Hangover") plays a down-on-his-luck writer who stumbles on an illegal mind-enhancing drug that activates 100 percent of his brain. Soon he's finished his novel, made millions on the stock market, and no longer needs to sleep. On the downside, he attracts the hostile attention of mogul Robert De Niro — and the side effects might be even bloodier.

Video: Watch the 'Limitless' trailer (on this page)
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The basic idea that medical science might someday make us smarter "isn't quite so crazy," said University of Minnesota physics professor James Kakalios, author of "The Physics of Superheroes" and "The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics."

"We have a variety of chemicals that can indeed affect the functioning of the brain. Look at drugs such as Prozac," which improve mood and concentration by changing the brain's electrochemistry, Kakalios said.

As for what's in "Limitless," though? "Taking a pill and becoming a supergenius? Mmmm, that's kinda crazy. That understanding of neurochemistry far eludes us at this stage," he says.

Story: 'Limitless' should be so much smarter

Also, forget boosting your brainpower by using 100 percent of it — because you already do that. "It's not actually true that we use only 10 or 20 percent of our brains," says Kakalios. "We use all of our brains. We don't understand a lot about how the brain works, but evolutionarily, everything in the three-pound hunk of meat on the top of your head is there for a reason."

Cooper's character would also need to watch out for a rebound effect if he stops taking his pill, which might leave him worse than when he started. "You can really overshoot. So Bradley Cooper might become really stupid once his pill supply runs out," Kakalios said.

Dream-sharing, as seen in 'Inception'
Could Leonardo DiCaprio and crew really burrow four levels deep into someone's dream, folding imaginary cities along the way?

Nah. It's almost pure fantasy.

Story: 'Inception' a four-star mind trip

But don't let it stop you from enjoying the movie. "I try not to just be Professor Grump," said Kakalios. "I thought 'Inception' was the coolest movie of the year. They provided just enough technobabble. I was kind of glad that they didn't try to overexplain it. And what was my reward? A zero-gravity fight in a hotel hallway! How often do I get to see that?"

But no matter how mindblowing it looks in the movies, leaping into dreams is well beyond anything we can do in real life, and might be impossible. "It's such a vast and challenging problem," Kakalios says. "Before you can transfer your thoughts into a computer system, we have to understand exactly what a thought is, and identify it in the brain. And experts disagree about such a basic question. We don't even understand fully how memory works."

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Flying battle armor, as seen in 'Iron Man'
When Iron Man debuted in the comics in the 1960s, his high-tech suit, which can survive an artillery hit and flies at supersonic speed, was almost ludicrously futuristic. Today, not so much. Even some of the most outlandish aspects of Iron Man's armor are only exaggerations of current technology.

For example, Iron Man doesn't need buttons or voice commands to control his suit — instead, Stark's helmet reads his brainwaves, and does what he thinks. That sounds crazy, but it's already here. A team of scientists in Germany recently debuted "Brain Driver," a device that, as the name suggests, lets you drive a car using only your mind. You just have to be willing to wear a goofy-looking headset in public.

Video: Merging man and machine

Nearly everything about Iron Man, says Kakalios, is "either existing technology or maybe six months away. Exoskeleton suits, those things exist. You can take a jetpack to work. The only problem is, you need to work just a few blocks from where you live, because it takes a lot of chemical energy just to lift a person up in the air."

Story: ‘Iron Man 2’ doesn't soar as high as original

In fact, the only truly unrealistic thing about Iron Man is his power supply. "The arc reactor in his chest is the size of a hockey puck and puts out the power of about three nuclear power plants," Kakalios said. "If we knew how to make things like that, superheroes would be the least of our problems."

Human cloning, as seen in 'Never Let Me Go'
In the somber love story "Never Let Me Go," three childhood friends discover that they're actually clones grown to provide transplant organs for "original" humans — and that they're expected to die in the process. It's a bleak look at the ethical issues raised by human cloning, which seems more possible than ever in this age of genetically modified food, 15 years after scientists successfully cloned a sheep. Luckily, human cloning isn't so easy. "I would have to defer to a biologist, but it's massively harder than cloning a sheep," says Kakalios. "But moreover, I don't believe that anyone is actively working on this. If anyone is, they're doing it illegally and in private."

Story: 'Never Let Me Go' is gorgeous and provocative

Artificial intelligence, as seen in 'Tron Legacy'
The world of "Tron Legacy" is populated by computer programs so sophisticated that they've become self-aware beings in their own right. Science fiction has long explored this idea both as a dream and a nightmare, and real science is starting to catch up.

No, we don't have pixellated Olivia Wildes yet — or Terminators either, on the plus side. But there are self-evolving computers that can learn from past mistakes, like IBM's Watson, the computer that recently beat four of the top human contestants on "Jeopardy." (Though it did think Toronto was a U.S. city, so there's hope for us yet).

Story: Brainy congressman beats 'Jeopardy' computer

"If you've got a computer that can play Jeopardy and actually win, it's getting very close" to genuine intelligence, says Kakalios. "A lot of this is dependent on what you consider to be intelligence, but even if the machines are doing it in a brute-force manner, they're doing it so much faster [than human brains] that it looks like it's the same as when we think about things." Now that they've conquered game shows, can the rest of the world be far behind?

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Time travel, as seen in 'Hot Tub Time Machine'
Good news for anyone wanting to jump back to 1986 in a nuclear-powered jacuzzi — it's theoretically possible. Well, there's one tiny hurdle you'll need to overcome first. "It only requires one impossible thing," says Kakalios. "You just have to have an infinitely long, massive cylinder rotating at high speed." So never mind the jacuzzi, then. What you'll need is called a Tipler cylinder — this theoretical machine warps space-time, so if you travel around it, you'll arrive earlier than you began.

Story: ‘Hot Tub Time Machine’ is a lukewarm soak

In fact, underneath the sex and squirrel-vomit jokes, there's a solid theory of time travel at work in "Hot Tub Time Machine." Called the "many worlds" theory, it suggests that travelers from the future don't need to worry about changing events in the past and erasing themselves from history. If you jump back in time and shoot your grandfather — or if you're John Cusack, avoid being stabbed in the eye with a fork — you'll create a new, alternate timeline that exists alongside the one you left. This way, jokes Kakalios, "you can kill as many grandparents as you have bullets, and you don't have to worry about wiping your own existence out."

Christopher Bahn is a writer in Minneapolis.

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Video: Watch the 'Limitless' trailer

Photos: March movies

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  1. 'The Adjustment Bureau'

    Stars: Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Anthony Mackie, John Slattery, Michael Kelly

    Director: George J. Nolfi

    Scheduled release date: March 4

    On the brink of winning a seat in the U.S. Senate, ambitious politician David Norris meets beautiful ballet dancer Elise Sellas. But just as he realizes he's falling for her, mysterious men conspire to keep the two apart. David learns he is up against the agents of Fate itself -- the men of "The Adjustment Bureau" -- who will do everything in their considerable power to prevent David and Elise from being together. (Universal Studios) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. 'Rango'

    Stars: Johnny Depp, Abigail Breslin, Isla Fisher, Alfred Molina

    Director: Gore Verbinski

    Scheduled release date: March 4

    'Rango' (voiced by Depp) is a sheltered chameleon facing a major identity crisis. When he accidentally winds up in the gritty, gun-slinging town of Dirt -- a lawless outpost populated by the desert's most wily and whimsical creatures -- the less-than-courageous lizard suddenly finds himself the town's last hope. (Paramount Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. 'Take Me Home Tonight'

    Stars: Topher Grace, Anna Faris, Dan Fogler, Teresa Palmer, Seth Gabel

    Director: Michael Dowse

    Scheduled release date: March 4

    "Take Me Home Tonight" is a retro comedy set in 1988. Aimless college graduate (Grace) pursues his dream girl at a wild Labor Day weekend party. He, his twin sister and their best friend struggle with their burgeoning adulthood over the course of the night. Grace knows retro -- he starred as Eric Forman in "That 70s Show." (Relativity Media) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. 'Beastly'

    Stars: Vanessa Hudgens, Mary-Kate Olsen, Alex Pettyfer, Neil Patrick Harris, Peter Krause

    Director: Daniel Barnz

    Scheduled release date: March 4

    You know the source material for "Beastly" -- "Beauty and the Beast." Here high school bully Kyle (Pettyfer) is transformed into a monster when he disses a classmate who's secretly a witch. Can love redeem him? (Takashi Seida / CBS Films) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. 'Battle: Los Angeles'

    Stars: Michelle Rodriguez, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Peña, Bridget Moynahan, Ne-Yo, Ramón Rodríguez

    Director: Jonathan Liebesman

    Scheduled release date: March 11

    "Battle: Los Angeles" is yet another alien invasion movie, with La La Land as the last stand as the creatures attack Earth. The focus is on a platoon of Marines and Airmen, with Eckhart leading the Marines. (Columbia Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. 'Jane Eyre'

    Stars: Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender, Jamie Bell, Judi Dench

    Director: Cary Fukunaga

    Scheduled release date: March 11

    Ah, "Jane Eyre." You know the Charlotte Bronte story -- poor Jane, Mr. Rochester, the madwoman in the attic. This adaptation is supposed to stick closely to the book, although director Fukunaga says he plans to emphasize the spooky, darker sides of the tale. (Focus Features) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. 'Mars Needs Moms'

    Stars: Brian Eastman, Seth Green, Joan Cusack, Elisabeth Harnois, Dan Fogler

    Director: Simon Wells

    Scheduled release date: March 11

    In the 3-D animated flick "Mars Needs Moms, " 9-year-old Milo (voice of Seth Green) finds out just how much he needs his mom (Joan Cusack) when she's nabbed by Martians who want the mothers of Earth to nurture their own children. (Walt Disney Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. 'Red Riding Hood'

    Stars: Amanda Seyfried, Gary Oldman, Billy Burke, Quentin Bates, Shiloh Fernandez, Max Irons, Virginia Madsen, Lukas Haas, Julie Christie

    Director: Catherine Hardwicke

    Scheduled release date: March 11

    'Red Riding Hood' is a Gothic imagining of the classic fairy tale in which a young woman is confronted by a werewolf, this time with a teenage love triangle at its center. (Warner Bros.) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. 'Kill the Irishman'

    Stars: Ray Stevenson, Christopher Walken, Val Kilmer, Steven R. Schirripa, Vincent D'Onofrio

    Director: Jonathan Hensleigh

    Scheduled release date: March 11

    In "Kill the Irishman," Ray Stevenson plays Danny Greene, the Irish mob boss fighting his way to the top of Cleveland's criminal underworld in the 1970s. (Anchor Bay Films) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. 'Limitless'

    Stars: Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, Abbie Cornish, Anna Friel, Tomas Arana

    Director: Neil Burger

    Scheduled release date: March 18

    In "Limitless," Bradley Cooper plays an unsuccessful writer whose life is transformed by a top-secret "smart drug" that allows him to use 100 percent of his brain and become a perfect version of himself. Too bad side effects include homicidal blackouts. (Relativity Media) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. 'Paul'

    Stars: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Jason Bateman, Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader

    Director: Greg Mottola

    Scheduled release date: March 18

    Two sci-fi geeks (Simon Pegg and Nick Frost of "Shaun of the Dead" and "Spaced") make a pilgrimage to America's UFO heartland. Naturally, they meet an alien named Paul who brings them on an insane road trip that alters their universe forever. (Universal Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. 'The Lincoln Lawyer'

    Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Ryan Phillippe, Marisa Tomei, William H. Macy, Josh Lucas

    Director: Brad Furman

    Scheduled release date: March 18

    "The Lincoln Lawyer" is Mickey Haller (McConaughey) an L.A. criminal defense attorney who operates out of the back of his Lincoln sedan. But dealing with his newest client (Phillippe) may not be as easy as previous cases. (Lionsgate) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. 'Win Win'

    Stars: Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Bobby Cannavale, Jeffrey Tambor, Burt Young

    Director: Thomas McCarthy

    Scheduled release date: March 18

    Disheartened attorney Mike Flaherty (Giamatti) who moonlights as a high school wrestling coach, stumbles across a star athlete who's estranged from his family. Just as the boy starts to have some real success, the kid's mother shows up fresh from rehab and flat broke, threatening to derail everything. (Fox Searchlight Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. 'Sucker Punch'

    Stars: Emily Browning, Vanessa Hudgens, Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Jamie Chung, Carla Gugino, Jon Hamm, Scott Glenn br>
    Director: Zack Snyder

    Scheduled release date: March 25

    A young girl, confined to a mental institution by her stepfather who plans to have her lobotomized in five days time, creates an imaginary world to plan her escape. The director has called it "'Alice in Wonderland' with machine guns." (Warner Bros.) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. 'Diary of a Wimpy Kid 2: Rodrick Rules'

    Stars: Zachary Gordon, Steve Zahn, Rachael Harris

    Director: David Bowers

    Scheduled release date: March 25

    The first "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" movie was a hit, so here comes round two, "Diary of a Wimpy Kid 2: Rodrick Rules." Rodrick is the older brother of seventh-grader Greg, and both resist their parents attempt to force them to bond. (20th Century Fox) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. 'Shelter'

    Stars: Julianne Moore, Jonathan Rhys Meyers

    Director: Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein

    Scheduled release date: March 25

    In "Shelter," Moore plays female forensic psychiatrist who discovers that all of one of her patient's multiple personalities are murder victims. Is she now in danger? (Icon Films) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. 'The Imperialists Are Still Alive!'

    Stars: Élodie Bouchez, José María de Tavira and Karim Saleh

    Director: Zeina Durra

    Scheduled release date: Mar 25

    In "The Imperialists Are Still Alive," Bouchez stars as a French Manhattanite who must juggle the sudden abduction of her childhood sweetheart as well as a blooming love affair. (Hi, Jack Films) Back to slideshow navigation
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Discuss: Science and fiction in science-fiction movies

Movie science often is pretty implausible. Have you seen some films that just make you laugh at their supposed scientific facts? Which ones?

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