Self/Less, the new movie starring Ben Kingsley and Ryan Reynolds, clearly wants to remind you of Limitless, the hit movie from 2011. There’s the similar title, but also another story of human enhancement with a dark side. And Self/Less proves that “posthuman thrillers” are becoming a genre.
Not that Self/Less has the exact same plot as Limitless, mind you. In Limitless, a dweeby writer (Bradley Cooper) takes some pills that make him supersmart, but there’s a dark side. In Self/Less, an billionaire who’s dying of cancer (Kingsley) is offered the chance to put his mind into a much younger body (Reynolds) and become, possibly, immortal.
Where the two movies become similar is in their examination of the possibilities for enhancing human beings, and the potential downsides of upgrading one individual using science. Both films have a fixation on pills—in Self/Less, Reynolds has to keep taking pills every day to stabilize his transfer into the new body—and the issue of reverse-engineering those pills becomes more and more urgent throughout the film. There are also sinister conspiracies (of course) which want to keep the information about what’s going on under wraps.
In your typical thriller, someone stumbles on a conspiracy, usually after something terrible has happened. Either the main character’s loved one is killed or kidnapped, or they witness a crime, or their world is unraveling in some terrible way. But the posthuman thriller takes an opposite tack: Here, the hero is the beneficiary of a great opportunity, which seems too good to be true, and then the film invites you to explore how that might turn out to be the case.
Those people who used to offer you a million dollars for wedding-night sex, or a job opportunity at the Devil’s law firm? They’re now offering you posthuman enhancement.
In Self/Less, Kingsley is told that Reynolds’ body is an empty vessel that was grown in a laboratory, and that he’s basically a lifeless shell until Kingsley inhabits him. (Even though there are signs that Reynolds has recently had a tattoo removed. So Kingsley, who’s incredibly gullible despite being a shrewd real estate tycoon, agrees to move his mind into Reynolds’ body but is horrified to realize, later, that his body had a previous occupant. And the original owner of the body has a wife and child, who are still out there.
You can pretty much guess where the movie goes from there—Self/Less is a fairly predictable film, except for one twist that I did not see coming at all. The whole thing is fairly sturdily built, and there are a few fun action sequences (it turns out that because the previous owner of Reynolds’ body was a soldier, Reynolds retains incredible combat skills even if he doesn’t remember where he got them.)
In the end, the whole thing is about individualism, and how valuable a single individual can actually be. Self/Less wants to bring up issues of class and wealth, and whether someone like Ben Kingsley’s real estate wizard, Damian, deserves to live on after the rest of the human race has to die, and there are hints at a kind of Randian philosophy where “men of genius” get to live on and keep making outsized contributions to society. We’re told again and again that Kingsley “built” Manhattan, and that he’s a brilliant mogul.
But there’s one snag—Self/Less is so clunky when it comes to characterization and theme, that it’s almost criminal. One early scene tries to establish sympathy for the dying elderly Damian by having a young whipper snapper show up for a business lunch and bark that nobody cares about Damian any more, because he’ll be dead in a year. (Now there’s a tactic that doesn’t get tried in business meetings too often.) We discover that Kingsley is estranged from his idealistic young daughter, and that he tries to solve everything with his checkbook, because he shows up at her struggling nonprofit, only to be told, “You think your checkbook can solve everything, Dad!”
And then there’s the fact that if Damian really did get a chance to live on forever in a brand new body that was grown in a lab—as opposed to stealing someone else’s body—he (and by extension the film) would have no problem with the idea of one rich person becoming immortal, while the rest of humanity has to die. It’s only the thought of actually stealing a specific person’s body that makes Damian have qualms.
In other words, this is a film that wants to probe deeper issues about individualism, class and the ethics of extending the lives of some people but not others, but has no idea how to—and anyway, it’s busy rocketing along the predictable path a million other thrillers have followed.
There’s one decent moment, though, where Damian learns that the previous owner of his body volunteered for the procedure in order to get money to pay for his daughter’s medical bills, because she was dying of a treatable illness. Damian looks pained and says that the guy didn’t have to, effectively, give his life for his daughter, Damian “could have just cut him a check.” The film’s mad scientist (Matthew Goode) gives him a knowing look and says, “But would you have?” And Damian has no answer to that. Because of course, he wouldn’t have.
The biggest surprise about Self/Less is that it’s directed by Tarsem Singh, who’s known for such lavishly weird image bombardments as The Cell, The Fall and Immortals. With Tarsem’s pedigree, you kind of expect crazy shit to pack the screen at every turn, but it feels like Tarsem is a hired hand this time around. His work is very much workmanlike “thriller” direction, with only a few interesting grace notes: The opening shot appears to be a dense forest, until the camera pulls back, and then you realize you’re looking at Central Park, which then turns into the view from Kingsley’s lavishly blingy apartment (where everything is painted gold.) Later, when Damian has flashbacks of the memories of his previous body’s owner, they’re vaguely psychedelic, but only vaguely. In general, though, this doesn’t feel like a Tarsem film.
And Self/Less, for a film about weighty issues of ethics and selfhood, is amazingly forgettable. It’s very much an in-flight movie waiting to happen. Self/Less will hold up well even if you take an Ambien halfway through watching it.
Still, it’s interesting to see more films coming along that deal with the potential of science to upgrade humans to the next level. Along with Limitless and Self/Less, Lucy comes to mind. Concepts like brain upgrades and “re-sleeving” have been around forever in science fiction, but they’re gaining a new relevance in pop culture as we start to glimpse the possibility that science really could make massive improvements to our mental capacities, and extend our lifespans radically. What’s interesting is that these films, unlike, say Gattaca, are about the people who benefit from unequal access to enhancement, rather than the people who are left behind.
As a film about individualism gone mad, in which one selfish individual develops a conscience, Self/Less is nothing special. But to the extent that it proves the “we can improve you” story is becoming a genre, it’s pretty interesting.