‘Self/Less’ Gives Life Lessons for Rich People

Even if we give the protagonist his newly found joie de vivre a pass, what with him essentially being brought back from the dead and all, it's still pointless.

Real estate mogul Damian Hale (Ben Kingsley) is known as “the man who built New York.” As Self/Less begins, he’s surveying his kingdom from the window of his gilded penthouse. He’s also dying.

As it turns out, being unutterably rich grants Damian some options, including immortality, and it only costs a quarter of a billion dollars. The process is called consciousness transfer, which is exactly what is sound like, transferring the consciousness, memories, emotions, and knowledge of one person into another body, a so-called “empty vessel.” Dr. Albright (Matthew Goode) promises that the process — more colorfully called “shedding” — means that the world need not lose a great man like Damian, but instead might continue to benefit from his brilliance. “The fate of a healthy mind is not determined by the fate of a failing body,” announces Albright.

Absurd? Totally. And that might be okay if the plot wasn’t also so thinly developed and unsurprising, not to mention based on Seconds, John Frankenheimer’s better movie. Predictably, Damian determines he is indeed brilliant and worth preserving, and that he’d rather live for decades in another body, as well as in a program akin to witness protection, than spending his last six months of life mending his relationship with his estranged daughter, Claire (Michelle Dockery).

After this dramatic buildup, it’s just a little bit surprising that when Damian submits himself to Albright’s shedding machine, we find it’s basically two MRI machines wired together. Seriously? No one in the effects department imagined anything more cutting edge than this? In a few painless, decidedly non-traumatic seconds, he wakes up in Ryan Reynolds’ body.

After a bit of rehab, during which the Damian learns to control this new body, memorizes a backstory, and agrees to take his medicine daily like a good boy, he’s ensconced in a new mansion with new toys, new clothes, and a new woman every night. Even if we give his newfound joie de vivre a pass, what with him essentially being brought back from the dead and all, young Damian’s life is just as self-indulgent as it ever was. Only now, without any actual work to do or a family, it’s also pointless.

After missing one of his pills by a few hours, Damian experiences “glitching,” or what Albright explains as hallucinations, a common side effect of shedding that will pass eventually. Dissatisfied with that answer (since Albright immediately reveals more than he should during his explanation), Damian runs off to discover the truth behind the visions. He’s astonished to discover that creepy Albright’s claim that the host bodies were grown in a lab isn’t true at all. Rather, Damian finds himself living in a body with its own mind and history, experiences and skill sets. Moreover, that mind, with all its repressed memories, is hovering beneath the surface ready to reclaim what belongs to it.

This moral quandary reveals the project of the film, to transform Damian from selfish to selfless. It appears that Mark, his host body, was remarkably selfless, a soldier, husband, and father who put his country and his family ahead of his own needs and desires. Dragging Mark’s wife, Madeline (Natalie Martinez), and daughter, Anna (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen) along so he can protect them from Albright’s henchman, Damian searches for Albright to a) put a stop to this nonsense of “stealing” bodies and b) get more pills so he can stay young by keeping Mark at bay. In the process, Damian learns more about Mark and suddenly consider the consequences of his actions.

The problem with Self/Less is that the question it’s predicated on — what would you be willing to do to live forever? — has been answered in more satisfying ways by other films. This version doesn’t even muster the emotional impact of Never Let Me Go, much less the broad philosophical dimensions of at least some variations on Frankenstein. This movie poses similar questions about economic and social inequities as Never Let Me Go, but lazily.

For the very rich, as always, anything is permissible, but guess who pays for it? Damian subjects Mark’s consciousness and body to serve his will, a sort of crudely drawn picture of the power of the 1%-ers, whose rights are never really disputed. Mark’s reemergence or continued repression will occur because Damian allows it or he doesn’t. Damian’s privilege affords him the luxury of choice, but Mark, restrained by his finances, required to make actual sacrifices. Sure, Mark inspires Damian to be a good father and a good man, but that’s hardly groundbreaking. The job of imparting humanity to the cold, rich man has always fallen to the poor one.

RATING 4 / 10