You know that recent movie with Ryan Reynolds where a character is dying of cancer, but calls a mysterious phone number because it comes with a promise to save his life? Oh no, I don’t mean that Ryan Reynolds movie (Deadpool, just in case you’ve been living under rock in 2016), I’m talking about Self/Less! Here, Ben Kingsley (Ghandi, Iron Man 3) plays Damian Hale, the afflicted character whose cancer is the plot driver, and Reynolds is the focus of the plot from the end of act 1 onward.
It’s an odd unique structure, but it mostly works because of the nature of the story. The connecting thread is neither Kingsley nor Reynolds, rather it’s the abstraction of the mind of Damian Hale that binds both characters together.
If you don’t know the plot of the movie, it’s more or less an updating of the Frankenstein story: Hale is a billionaire who lives in a modern-day palace overlooking Central Park where almost everything looks like it’s made of gold. I found the visual conceit annoying, but given the director is Tarsem Singh (The Cell, Immortals), the surprising thing here is that there aren’t more visuals of this nature. The mysterious number he calls is that of the smooth talking Professor Albright (Watchmen’s Matthew Goode) who has pioneered a method of transferring consciousness from one body to the next, ostensibly for the sake of preserving great minds – wealthy great minds, of course. The host bodies are promoted as being grown in house for that particular purpose, but if you’ve watched even one movie in your life ever, you know the truth. The mind switch is performed, and the movie hands the baton to Reynolds, who performs the next half an hour or so in a kind of “training montage” as Hale’s mind gets used to the benefits of existing in this hot new body. Everything any guy would do if they woke up one morning looking like Ryan Reynolds, in other words. But when Nu Hale becomes plagued by hallucinations of what appears to be another life, the archplot of the movie kicks in, and he endeavours to find out what they mean.
It’s at this point the movie becomes somewhat less interesting, but stays engaging, thanks to a typically solid performance by Reynolds as the sympathetic lead. Like we, the audience, it doesn’t take him long to discover the wool has been pulled over his eyes by Albright, which is a good thing because of the simplicity and obviousness of the story – as slowly as the movie is paced, having Reynolds go through a protracted discovery plot would have been a big mistake. Written by David Pastor and Alex Pastor, the story does move along with very little misdirection, but many scenes just feel a little too long. Having said that, the arc of the Reynolds character is well laid out and I felt pretty satisfied by it, especially in how it concludes. Yes, it’s pretty predictable, but the expectations are set up early on so it takes on a kind of comfortable all-things-are-right-in-the-end quality.
What I didn’t like so much about the story is the character of Albright. As someone who is a devotee of the principles of transhumanism, I actually had some admiration for the character of Albright – the best villains are those with complex motivations bolted on to the old chestnut of the character doing what he thinks is right. I appreciated his goal, and I also like the reveal about his character towards the end of act 2, but then he’s simply turned into just another villain. All complexity becomes stripped away, and he is reduced to doing villainous things, the moral ambiguity of his process just turned into another mad scientist feeding his own ego and bank account. It’s a real shame, and one that could have been foisted upon the plot by the studio, because it doesn’t feel like a natural evolution of the character at all. Just like in Frankenstein, when the creature rebels against his prideful creator and attains a higher moral ground for doing so, Hale’s pursuit of Albright and Albright’s devolution from high minded transhumanist to an arrogant anti-humanist with a small army of armed henchmen is mostly just another version of the SCIENCE BAD! trope, which is kind of depressing. As the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s famous creation approaches, popular science fiction is still as concerned with things “man was not meant to know” as it has ever been. Certainly, there have been some transcendent works in the visual medium, but so much of it decries science, so often makes it the focus of the villain so that it isn’t enough that the villain be defeated, his science must also be destroyed so that nobody else can have it. The implication is that the science we all take for granted is good, but experimental science somehow is primed to go awry and have nothing but harmful, destructive effects, especially when that science is discovered by the villain. Science by itself isn’t bad, certainly it can – and frequently is – used by evil people, but in real life it becomes perfected and transformed into a boon to humanity. It’s too bad that the movies rarely reflect that.
Consider my axe to be fully ground, and my time on the soapbox done. Self/Less is a movie I ignored in the theaters, and completely forgot about until I decided to watch it last night. It’s less of a Tarsem Singh movie as one familiar with the name would expect – there are very few examples of his signature visual style, and it appears a more homogeneous thriller than it could have been. As it is, the movie works thanks to an engaging central performance by Reynolds, and a pleasingly happy ending.