Thor is having a midlife crisis, and Darren Aronofsky made a TV show about it.
Limitless with Chris Hemsworth — a six-part National Geographic docuseries now streaming on Disney+ — does not immediately announce itself in this way. The show’s apparent premise is that Hemsworth, an actor who — for work reasons — has chiseled his body into a state of perfection, has decided to subject himself to a series of extreme tests of mental and bodily endurance in pursuit of longevity. He goes long-distance swimming in the Arctic, he does a rope climb over a fathomless void, he strolls out on a catwalk suspended over Sydney Harbour — stuff like that. Hemsworth talks constantly in earnest voice-over about how mastering these challenges can lead to a longer, healthier life, but the show’s seemingly sincere commitment to his Quest for Wellness is often overwhelmed by its visual spectacle. Limitless seems, then, like it might instead be a circus act, born from the mind of Aronofsky, contemporary cinema’s most obsessive auteur of bodily extremes. How much can one of the fittest men on Earth endure before breaking?
But, it turns out, Hemworth was already broken a little. Shortly into the first episode, viewers realize that the show is less about a fearless hero in search of eternal life than a guy who is, for rather quotidian reasons, very afraid: of aging, of dying, of losing his edge. Every episode of the series is built around the research and practical advice of a different expert, and this first one — nominally about managing stress and anxiety — centers the work of American social psychologist Modupe Akinola. A few minutes into the episode, as Hemsworth chauffeurs the good doctor around his hometown, Akinola asks about how stress manifests in his life. Rather than provide a readymade, media-trained answer to this question, Hemsworth seems to be taken off guard. He stumbles a bit before sharing an anecdote about not knowing how to manage his misbehaving kids and looming paparazzi while eating out at a restaurant. Admittedly, bringing children to a restaurant is only slightly less stressful than, say, being an air traffic controller, but still, it’s hard not to hear, in the charming quaver of Hemsworth’s voice, all that he’s not saying. Like a contestant on The Bachelorette, Hemsworth has a hard time articulating his emotions beyond cliché. He dissembles, he weakly jokes, he “puts up walls” around his heart and mind.
Then, just as on The Bachelorette, the talking ends, and it’s time to get strapped to a bungee cord. The show’s beautifully shot scenic stunts are designed by a variety of TED-talk healers, “sports scientists,” and longevity physicians as ways for Hemsworth to confront his fears and “reset” his body for peak performance, and we viewers at home are given nominally usable tips based off of them. Akinola guides Hemsworth to remember “box breathing” and “positive self-talk” as he tries to lower his heart rate enough to walk out on a crane attached to a skyscraper. We learn about the health benefits of intermittent fasting, the transformative power of cold showers, and that having sculpted glamor muscles doesn’t necessarily make you strong. Taking a schvitz can help you live longer. Going on hikes can help you live longer. Eating fresh fish that you harpoon yourself can help you live longer. A man who free dives with some regularity may very well never die.
There’s a hard, and fascinating, separation, though, between Hemsworth’s well-meaning, GOOPesque mission to defeat Death by going on a series of terrible vacations, and the show’s ultimate insistence that these Quixotic larks are distractions, deflections, evasions. If Hemsworth himself can only manage to limply hint at the grim inevitability of these exercises, Aronofsky’s show is built around it. Limitless has a dramatic, even lurid interest in its host’s own anxiety, and as the episodes progress, the focus subtly begins to drift away from the Fountain of Youth. The first four episodes, for instance, all close with a list of action items that Hemsworth and viewers at home can perform, but the show literally stops providing those toward the end. Hemsworth’s pursuit of immortality through wealth, wellness, and feats of strength is supplanted by Aronofsky’s pursuit of the heart of darkness inside the God of Thunder.
It's unclear whether this was always the plan, as the show’s fifth episode begins with some startling news that changes the tenor of the series from there on out. We see Peter Attia, the doctor we’d last watched encouraging Hemsworth to optimize his performance playing underwater hockey, in an unusually serious pose. The DNA test results he’d run for Hemsworth are back, and they present some troubling findings. The actor, it turns out, has two copies of the APOE4 gene, a rare duplication that puts him at substantially higher risk than the average person of developing Alzheimer’s disease. The camera lingers, perhaps we expect to see a tear in Hemsworth’s eye. Instead, though, we see something else: processing. For an actor, a star, whose great skill is his ability to portray punctured bravado, the fragile masculinity of the insecure god, this moment is full of strange resonance and reverence. We’ve seen Thor, over and over, defend his tender ego with hammer and axe and shield; here, we see Chris Hemsworth, 39-year-old dad, momentarily defenseless.
If Hemsworth himself can only manage to limply hint at the grim inevitability of these exercises, Aronofsky’s show is built around it.
The remainder of that episode — titled, “Memory” — is both depressed and distracted. Hemsworth visits a Stanford Alzheimer’s researcher, we see him do a few neurological tests, but there are no memory exercises, no practical tips, no mental gymnastics for viewers at home to perform. Attia strikes a quick optimistic note, telling Hemsworth that the extreme cold and heat challenges as well as the intermittent fasting he’d performed on previous episodes are effective ways to reduce the risk of degenerative illness, but, after those early cut scenes, the show doesn’t put too much focus on that line of thinking. If anything, the episode runs away from the diagnosis a bit, sending Hemsworth off on a hike through the Australian wilderness with an old friend. The hike ends with a ceremony led by various Indigenous elders. It’s a fine moment between friends — Hemsworth’s hiking partner is Gumbaynggirr-Bundjalung artist Otis Hope Cary — but it’s hard to tell, ultimately, where the episode lands. Hemsworth is momentarily at peace, but also, lost.
That’s not an issue for the episode that follows. Limitless’ grand finale — “Acceptance” — is a 90-minute piece of immersive theater that ends with Hemsworth staging and nominally coming to terms with his own death. Every sentence I could possibly write to describe this episode is going to seem more outlandish than the last, but I promise you that, at minimum: Aronofsky and an army of production assistants and set designers build a full-scale nursing home on a seaside bluff in Australia; they fill that nursing home with real life elderly people as well as actors playing facility staff who stay in character for the full three-day experience; they outfit Hemsworth with a preposterously complicated suit that’s meant to simulate the physical ravages of aging (restricting his range of motion, hunching his posture, weighing down his steps, even blurring his eyesight); everybody he meets pretends that he is old and infirm and not a very famous man in a weird and punishing get-up; when he’s finally let out of the suit, which causes him visible anguish and barely concealed rage, his wife appears, in full prosthesis, as an aged version of herself; he has to say goodbye to her, and then he dies.
Parts of the experiment, designed by palliative care physician B.J. Miller, work in almost indescribable ways, visualizing meaningful insights about old age and forcing both Hemsworth and the viewer to confront mortality in ways otherwise only available via streaming service if you’re watching Coco; parts of it collapse under the conceptual limits of the show itself. It’s a stunt meant to make the star uncomfortable in ways stars rarely have to feel. Indeed, amidst all the other indignities — the physical discomfort, the loneliness, the loss — it’s the condescension that seems to irk Hemsworth most. The actors playing the nursing home staff speak slowly and too loud, they treat him like a child, none of them, as a rule, act as if they know who “Chris Hemsworth” is. He can, and does, escape some of the snares set up for him. But he can’t escape them all. The show can’t really make Chris Hemsworth feel powerless, it can’t and won’t actually kill him — though I wouldn’t put it past Aronofsky to have pitched the idea — but it can make him, for a minute, feel forgotten. It ends with Hemsworth alone in a dark room with a death doula, who narrates to him — and forces him to repeat — the details of his final moments of consciousness. It is, for all of these reasons, one of the most chaotic, daring, failed experiments I’ve seen on television in some time.
I sometimes teach a college course on celebrity culture. When I have to explain to students what the mythical “It” factor is that differentiates true stars from even other actors, I have an easy trick. I simply say, “There are three Hemsworth brothers,” and a wave of understanding passes through the room. There are three Hemsworth brothers they might recognize on the street; only one has “it.” Chris Hemsworth — indisputably, obviously, singularly — is a star, and, to be a star of that magnitude is to access a certain kind of immortality, even if metaphorically. You will decline, and you will age, and you will lose your edge, but the idea of you, your image out there in the minds of the public or streaming in the halls of Asgard, will outlive your mere body. Limitless is not a show about taking the rich and famous down a peg. In fact, for as much as it spotlights Hemsworth’s blindnesses and naivete, it’s remarkably generous toward him as a person. But it is a surprisingly self-reflective show about what happens to a charismatic, handsome, jacked, vulnerable, aging, deathbound human being who’s watched an image of himself achieve an immortality that he’ll never know. Despite that, Chris Hemsworth is, like a lot of people, like me, a generally happy guy, pushing 40, with a loving partner and a job he likes, just trying to keep a handle on his kids at the restaurant, just trying to breathe.
Phillip Maciak is the TV editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books and the author of Avidly Reads Screen Time, forthcoming in May 2023.