Originally published at Let There Be Movies
Rich real estate mogul Damian (Ben Kingsley) is dying of cancer and his wealth and intellect cannot save him. Or can it? His daughter wants nothing to do with him (or his money). He has no wife or other loved ones to comfort him. And his competition can’t wait for him to be dead and gone. Yet, with just months to live, he is presented an opportunity by a mysterious scientist named Albright (a rather passionless Matthew Goode with cool specs) to live on in a new body via a process called “Shedding”. “We offer humanity’s greatest minds more time to fulfill their potential,” Albright explains (although it’s not quite clear how Damian is one of humanity’s greatest minds). And so, with some melodramatic fanfare, Damian transfers his consciousness into a lab-grown body and reemerges with a new alias, a new home, and a new life. Everything seems perfect… until the hallucinations start.
Self/Less is just one of a number of transhumanist stories coming out in the era of Kurzweil-esque end-times speculation. That is, the futurist and director of engineering at Google, Ray Kurzweil, has speculated that at some point in the future humans will be able to extend their lives by uploading their minds into computers, thus achieving immortality. This is, in my estimation, pure fantasy since it trades on the erroneous belief that minds are physical. But, as I’ve argued here and here, minds are immaterial aspects of souls and, therefore, cannot be downloaded anywhere. Nevertheless, transhumanist views provide some interesting fodder for science fiction; so, with a well-written story, I have no qualms suspending disbelief for a couple of hours.
Self/Less is certainly an interesting idea, but it never attains greatness. This is probably due to the underwhelming script by the Pastor brothers (Carriers) and an equally underwhelming performance by Ryan Reynolds. Let’s face it: Ryan Reynolds is Ryan Reynolds in every movie he’s ever been in. This isn’t to say that he turns in a bad performance, just an average one. He looks down furtively when he needs to and he gets angry and yells when he’s supposed to but it all lacks a gravitas that probably could have made Damian more real to us.
Reynolds is not fully to blame here. The story spends almost no time setting up the character of Damian in the first act. Consequently, we’re not really invested in him or his experiences through the course of the film. Sure, gunfights, car chases, and explosions are cool in just about any circumstance but filmmakers cannot (and should never) sacrifice character development in order to spend more time in the second act.
As I mentioned Damian begins seeing things. Flashes of imagery. A beautiful woman smiling. A child laughing. A black horse in pasture. But are these images merely hallucinations, as Albright explains, or are they pointing to something real? Albright advises Damian to forget about them and to remember to take his red pills (Matrix nod?). Damian follows doctor’s orders, that is, until one day he forgets to take his pill. Not only do the images return but he discovers that they may be memories, and that his new body might not be “lab-grown” after all but previously owned. Compelled to discover who his body used to be, Damian is stalked by Albright and his mysterious organization as he searches the country for the beautiful woman and her daughter.
There were a few particular aspects of the movie that stood out to me as I watched it. First, Self/Less doesn’t really seem interested in being a science fiction film. So many things are left unexplained about the process of Shedding that it feels like a simplistic plot device to get Damian into the mystery of confronting his “other” past. Albright explains that, after a year of taking the red pills, his other self will fully disappear and Damian will finally take over. But if Damian stops taking the pills then the opposite will happen. Huh??
This leads into my second observation. As I mentioned stopping to take the pills will cause the previous owner to return, which leads into a very interesting moral dilemma. If you had the power to save someone that you never knew by killing yourself, would you do it? Perhaps Gene and some of the other fellas can tackle this in a future MDD. I do appreciate the cleverness in the title of the film Self/Less as there may or may not be a double entendre present (depending on how the ending tackles this question).
Finally, I really appreciated the way the film views family relationships. That is, today’s culture presents a picture of indifference and dysfunctionality with regard to family life, particularly the father/child dynamic. Fathers these days are characterized as being bumbling and inept one-dimensional punchlines worthy of some serious eye-rolls from their children. But one of the themes of Self/Less is the notion of sacrificing for the good of family. The Bible says that children are a gift and a blessing (Psalm 127:3, 5) and that an excellent wife is worth far more than jewels (Proverbs 31:10). In the beginning of the film the view of family matches the current worldview; but, as the film progresses, we see a change such that the value of family (again, particularly children) matches much more closely to Scripture. Obviously, I’m being vague here but I don’t want to reveal too much. Needless to say, it’s refreshing to see a Hollywood film place such value in what is truly precious.
Self/Less is an interesting (yet utterly false) concept wrapped up in a popcorn mystery with some plot twists here and there. Unfortunately, the story’s potential for more complex and nefarious machinations are never realized. But a couple aspects of the film affirm a Christian worldview and, thus, provide interesting conversation around the water cooler. Self/Less is rated PG-13 for violence, language, and brief nudity.