SELF/LESS, US, 2015. Starring Ryan Reynolds, Natalie Martinez, Matthew Goode, Ben Kingsley, Victor Garber, Derek Luke, Michelle Dockery.Directed by Tarsem Singh. 117 minutes. No rating available.
The premise of this drama which, perhaps unfortunately for the very serious-minded, becomes something of an action and shootout film towards the end rather than staying with the implications of the drama, is very interesting. Some films explore cryogenics in which the person pays a company to freeze their body, to be thawed later so that the person might have a new life – later. The premise of this one is that a scientist has worked out a process by which an ageing and ill person can have a soul or a self-transfer from the debilitated body to a healthy body and come alive, younger, stronger. The limit, however, is that the transferee should not having any contact with their past.
In the early moments of this film, billionaire Ben Kingsley, a sometimes ruthless head of business, who is alienated from his social-minded protester daughter, Michelle Dockery of Downton Abbey, decides that he will make the transfer. He is in the power of a young, rather cool and calculating scientist played by Matthew Goode.
If you have read the credits on the advertising and seen Ryan Reynolds as the star of the film, you will quickly realise that he is the one who provides the body for the transfer.
Were this a documentary, that might be the end of it as the new person lived happily ever after this breakthrough process. But this is never the case in science-fiction. Writers and audiences seem to prefer the Frankenstein mythology, that the scientist or the doctor usurps their human capacities with hubris that makes them want to “play God” and they create a monster.
It is slightly more subtle here, with reminiscences of people who believe in reincarnation and have memories from their past. The billionaire in his new body, initially wants to live the high life of self-gratification, but images surface, images from the past, from the character of the body they now inhabit. Here is a moral dilemma. Does the new inhabitant suppress the memories of the past or encourage them, follow them through, search out the story of the original person in the body.
Since this is a science-fiction film, it is obvious that the billionaire is going to try to find out what happens, discovering the truth, discovering the motivation of the man for surrendering his body, the repercussions for his wife and daughter.
And, of course, the scientist will be none too pleased (and there is an interesting twist on his identity as well) and repercussions for a close friend of the billionaire and his sickly son.
The writers of this film are in fact Spaniards, the Pastor Brothers, who have written some horror stories in the past. It means then that their road towards culmination will draw from action and horror rather than from psychological resolution, which will not only involve guns but also a flamethrower.
While this means that what might have been something of an art-house science-fiction exploration of identity, the nature of the self, the self becoming less than it was, and the potential for selflessness in the altruistic sense (and all those meanings are included in the title of the film), it goes to a more multiplexed mentality culminating in action, melodrama, but not without romantic hope.
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Released 23rd July 2015.