Self/less is the latest example of an increasingly common type of thriller, to which, for lack of a pithier designation, I will refer to as the “Idiotic As It Seems, It Might Also Actually Happen Soon” movie. Normally this type of story will involve a character in some sort of life crisis who undergoes a radically transformative medical procedure that makes him something more, but also perhaps subtly less, than fully human. As foolish as most of these pictures so far have been (Lucy, to name a particularly egregious offender) it cannot be denied that there is a very real moral interest at the heart of them. After all, even if the experimental procedures depicted onscreen are nothing more than the latest offerings from Tinseltown’s venerable laboratory of fake science, there are even now plenty of tenured men and women in white lab coats devotedly working to make this fake science real. To quote one prominent member of the guild, “We have achieved two of the three alchemists’ dreams: we have transmuted the elements and learned to fly. Immortality is next.” This same real-life futurist oracle, the perfectly named Dr. Max More, has also declared “No more gods, no more faith, no more timid holding back. Let us blast out of our old forms, our ignorance, our weakness, and our mortality. The future belongs to posthumanity.” One lesson to learn from these bold protestations is that in certain cases Fiction is not only not stranger than Fact, but may also at times have difficulty keeping up with its rhetorical histrionics. Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein, even in his most Promethean moments, sounds by comparison with Dr. More like a Luddite soapbox orator denouncing the empire of steam, coal, and the dark satanic mills. And to the credit of Self/Less‘s makers, its script also does a comparatively respectable job of trimming back the fustian.
Self/less introduces at its opening Damian Hayes (Ben Kingsley) a mogul of New York architecture who is dying of esophageal cancer. In the films first ten minutes (a model, by the way, of economic storytelling) we learn that for all Hayes’ cynical bluster, he has a tender conscience and an abiding sense of guilt for having as a younger man prioritized the interests of his career over those of his family. He has, at best, a distant relationship with his daughter (Michelle Dockery) and no idea of how to close the gap in their affection with only a few months to live. However, he has found out about a new scientific technology (not what it seems, of course) that allows a person to transfer his memories and consciousness to a new body and thereby enjoy another life, having pumped the necessary quarters into the machine. At a key moment early in the film, a doctor asks Kingsley “Do you feel immortal?” It is curious that immortality for its own sake does not appear to have entered very far into Hayes’ calculations; the man we are introduced to in the opening sequence of the picture does not register with us as someone with any uncommon fear of oblivion; or as he puts it, “This is not a tragedy. I’m simply an old man who is dying.” And, as he is a wealthy American in the 21st century, thoughts of the Four Last Things are quite as far from him as from any of the Trumps, Gates or Buffetts of the world. In this respect, Hayes is no more wise or foolish than we would expect a man of his type to be. It is one of the picture’s strong points that for all his failings, Hayes is strangely sympathetic as portrayed by Kingsley, who has in recent years mostly excelled at playing bastards of various backgrounds. But the millionaire he gives us here is not a mere cardboard Gordon Gekko with a more urgent sense of mortality on the side. Most of the movie’s best qualities are the effects of Kingsley’s work, and sadly disappear with him in the second act.
Here I should mention that the casting director is much to be blamed; for the premise of the film to convince, we must be able to accept that Hayes/Kingsley’s entire personality has survived in Hayes version 2.0 (Ryan Reynolds). In other words, Reynolds must convince us that he is a septuagenarian on the inside, a feat of which few actors still on the right side of forty are capable. And among younger actors, it would be difficult to name one less naturally grave than Mr. Van Wilder himself. But for that matter, has a younger screen actor without the advantages of CGI credibly inhabited the persona of an aged character this side of James Dean in the latter half of Giant? On this count, Reynolds fails without question, but it doesn’t appear that director Singh was much interested in having the younger actor mimick the elder to begin with. Here we have not simply a new body, but a new man, whatever the story may tell us. And so Self/less is left to flail about implausibly, though even its latter sequences, in which Hayes realizes that his new body is not simply a synthetic product but rather the former shell of another man, are not without pathos, and engage our interest, even while they cannot sustain our regard.