by Gary Westfahl
As a film, Self/less has several significant virtues: it is fast-paced and involving; it is unpredictable; it features excellent performances by an actor expected to provide them (Ben Kingsley) and an actor not expected to provide them (Ryan Reynolds); and its science-fictional premise, while not without questionable aspects, is developed with unusual care and consistency. However, while praising director Tarsem Singh and screenwriters David Pastor and Alex Pastor for their fine work, one must also acknowledge that, as a necessary precondition to getting the film into production, they were obliged to weaken their story, to fulfill the contemporary producer’s formula for sure-fire success, by reducing a complex scenario to a simplistic morality tale and adding a modicum of gratuitous violence.
Ostensibly, this is a film about immortality: wealthy New York builder Damian Hale (Kingsley) is dying, and the head of a firm called Phoenix Biogenic, Dr. Albright (Matthew Goode), offers him the chance to continue living by means of secret new technology. Yet in two respects, Self/less diverges from the tradition of stories about lonely immortals I described while reviewing The Age of Adaline (review here). First, individuals who become immortal accidentally (like Adaline, Robert A. Heinlein’s Lazarus Long, and Jerome Bixby’s Flint and John Oldman) are not troubled by their condition and enjoy long, placid lives; individuals who become immortal as a matter of choice (like Jack Barron in Norman Spinrad’s Bug Jack Barron ) are typically tormented by guilt and lament their decision. Second, Albright’s method for extending Damian’s life – transferring his consciousness to a different body and providing him with a new identity in New Orleans – connects the film to a related but distinct tradition of stories about individuals dissatisfied with their lives who want to start over again and enjoy a second career. The film thus brings to mind two other works from the 1960s: the Twilight Zone episode “Of Late I Think of Cliffordville” (1963) and John Frankenheimer’s film Seconds (1966).
What writers are telling us is paradoxical but clear: it is all right to become immortal, but it is not all right to want to become immortal; therefore, there must always be something evil about the methods willful immortals employ in order to provide them with a suitable punishment. In The Lazarus Effect (review here), a drug that revives dead people turns them into homicidal maniacs; in Bug Jack Barron, the immortality treatment employs the glands of murdered African-American children; and in Self/less, as the transformed Damian, now named Eddie Kittner (Reynolds), ruefully learns, his new body was not grown in a lab, but rather is the body of another man, Mark Kittner, who agreed to give up his life to provide his daughter with life-saving medical treatment. When his investigation of some troubling hallucinations – actually, the dead man’s lingering memories – leads him to his widow Madeline (Natalie Martinez) and daughter Anna (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen), he tells her “I’m sorry – so sorry” and insists that “I didn’t know” his new life involved another person’s death (exactly what Jack Barron proclaimed); and during a later confrontation with Albright, he labels him “not a savior” but “a psychopath.”
This is one way in which the film is not as interesting as it might have been. Albright is not a nice guy, but no one can deny that he has made an important and potentially valuable discovery; he further insists that he turned to the use of other people’s bodies solely because the process of growing new ones proved unexpectedly difficult. And arguably, if a person wants to commit suicide in order to earn lots of money, he has the right to do so; a person who greatly admires an aging mentor might even volunteer to allow the man to take over his body. (This possibly occurred in the film, as it seems that an elderly professor has taken over the body of a presumably devoted student.) In sum, while one can certainly challenge the morality behind Albright’s decisions, it was hardly necessary to transform him into a comic-book villain. But as I have noted before, Hollywood abhors ambiguity, assuming that audiences respond best to entirely virtuous heroes battling against entirely despicable villains.
Further, after the film has established that Albright is a scoundrel, it makes perfect sense that, once Eddie stumbled upon his secret, the scientist would resolve to slaughter him – providing the film with that other essential ingredient in Hollywood sci-fi films, violence. What doesn’t make sense is that he never sends enough people to do the job right. After all, we are told that Damian paid him 250 million dollars for a prolonged life, and Albright’s other clients were undoubtedly charged similar sums. He could easily afford, then, to assign more than four people to track down and kill Eddie, and to provide them with more reliably lethal weapons than handguns and cars. But it is a convention of melodrama that, no matter how smart the villain is, he must turn incredibly stupid whenever he tries to kill the hero so the hero can survive. Here, it is just barely possible that one armed man like Eddie might survive an encounter with four men equipped with handguns and a flame-thrower; but it would be impossible for one armed man to survive being carpet-bombed by a dozen drones.
As indicated, Singh and the Pastors were virtually obliged to demonize Albright and imbue him with a propensity for mayhem, yet they admirably did so as minimally as possible: Albright is repeatedly provided with opportunities to defend himself, allowing thoughtful viewers to see his side of the story even while despising him, and the film’s four gunfights are thankfully brief. But these concessions also prevented the film from exploring other interesting possibilities in its premise.
One of these is the notion that an old man, given another opportunity to experience the joys of youth, might actually become bored and dissatisfied and ponder other alternatives. This is precisely what occurs in Seconds, and while there are significant differences between the films, Self/less manifestly borrowed some elements from Frankenheimer’s film. (Both films involve secret organizations that provide older men with new, youthful identities and surround them with fun-loving friends who are actually their secret employees, keeping an eye on their clients and making sure they behave.) Seconds’s Tony Wilson quickly grows tired of a leisurely life of artwork and parties; Damian initially has fun going to bars, making out with a series of women, and gorging on peanut butter (his own body had been allergic to peanuts), but one night we observe him walking out of a lively bar, no longer enjoying the proceedings. Wilson responds to his plight by contacting his former wife (and, in a deleted scene, his daughter) and seeking a second new identity; but although he briefly calls his estranged daughter Claire (Michelle Dockery) and says nothing, Eddie does not need to address the predicament of his unappealing new life, as he must keep rushing around to avoid Albright’s hit men.
Another possibility to consider is that an accomplished businessman, rather than settling into a carefree retirement, might wish to carry on with his profession and duplicate his previous success – like Bill Feathersmith in “Of Late I Think of Cliffordville.” This is what Albright should be encouraging Eddie to do; after all, the stated justification for his procedure is that it will provide “humanity’s greatest minds” with “more time” to do productive work. So, addressing the reborn and relocated “Man Who Built New York,” Albright should be urging Eddie to make himself “The Man Who Built New Orleans.” Instead, he advises him to “relax and have some fun” because “at your age, you’ve earned it.” Yet a man like Eddie, who spent decades as a dedicated, driven executive, would understandably grow weary of a permanent vacation, and if he had not been diverted into fistfights and car chases, he might have attempted to start a new company and launch some projects.
This might have led to a provocative sequence addressing an interesting question: are some individuals successful because they are remarkably talented, or because they are remarkably lucky? The Twilight Zone’s Feathersmith is confident that he can earn himself another fortune, but a series of bad decisions leads him into an alternate present where he is not a tycoon, but a janitor. Eddie, too, might have stumbled as he endeavored to make himself into New Orleans’s Damian Hale, as suggested when Eddie and his former colleague Martin O’Neil (Victor Garber) agree that they had both made bad choices as elderly men: “so much for the wisdom of experience.” Yet the quiet drama of a failed business deal was regarded as insufficiently appealing to audiences believed to be yearning for more and more action.
Still, instead of emphasizing missed opportunities – what the film failed to do – reviewers should properly address the filmmakers’ actual priorities – what the film does. One of its foregrounded messages is obvious and banal: daddies should love their daughters. The deceased Mark Kittner was a good father, even though he could only afford a tiny house, because he paid attention to his daughter and sacrificed his life to restore her health; Damian Hale was a bad father, even though he lived in a lavish condominium, because he neglected his daughter to focus on his business, alienating her so much that she becomes the leader of a nonprofit corporation, first called the Green Coalition and later the Triborough Community Coalition, which is clearly dedicated to opposing the actions of wealthy executives like her father. Now, some fathers might argue that the film is presenting a false dichotomy, that it is actually possible to become both a financial success and a satisfactory parent, but hey, there are more poor people than rich people in a typical audience, so a film should logically console its less fortunate viewers by reminding them that, at least, they are much better parents than those millionaires buying vacation homes in the Bahamas on House Hunters International.
Another point made by the film is that today, thanks to the internet, it is much harder to keep a secret. In 1966, if Seconds’s Wilson had found himself in Eddie’s predicament, he would have been unable to track down the company head or his body’s former home; but by Googling Albright’s term for putting people in new bodies, “shedding,” Eddie finds information about the scientist who first developed the idea, Dr. Francis Jensen (Thomas Francis Murphy), and later locates his widow, Phyllis Jensen (Sandra Ellis Lafferty), who leads him to Albright. Google Images provides the location of the distinctive water tower he observed in his “hallucinations,” and a GPS device then takes him to the tower and Madeline Kittner’s nearby house.
Self/less is also a tale of two, very different, cities. New York City is the place where everybody works hard, whether they are ruthless businessmen like Damian and Martin or energetic idealists like Claire. New Orleans is the place where everybody kicks back and relaxes – playing basketball and pool, engaging in extreme water sports, joining street bands, dancing and drinking in bars, and enjoying one-night stands. Indeed, the only people regularly observed working in New Orleans are Albright and his henchmen, suggesting that the city is a center for criminal activity as well. To complete the film’s moral geography: the small town of Brighton, Missouri, is where upright individuals like the Kittners avoid these damaging extremes, holding low-paying jobs that give them ample time to spend with their families as they proudly display the American flag outside their homes. Significantly, it is only after Eddie visits Madeline’s house, and meets Madeline and Anna, that he begins his transformation from heel to hero. Finally, good folks like the Kittners sustain themselves by dreaming about someday retiring to an island in the Caribbean, also far away from the temptations of urban vices, and this is where the film concludes.
While the film is about a new way for elderly people to literally recapture their youth, its three older characters additionally illustrate traditional ways to figuratively recapture one’s youth. Phyllis Jensen, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, loves to wallow in happy memories, as she drifts from answering Eddie’s questions to reminiscing about the time she first met her husband. In the film’s opening scene, Damian seems energized when he contrives to confront and defeat a youthful business rival. And Damian’s colleague Martin, though he looks even older than Damian, has married a second, much younger wife (portrayed as an irksome bitch who drives away their maids), and he has started a new family. The film touches upon other forms of ersatz immortality: Albright notes that, in a sense, Damian’s many buildings will make his immortal, and the film echoes The Age of Adaline’s point about the immortality achieved through photography, as Eddie and audiences can see and hear the dead Francis Jensen thanks to a film clip on the internet.
The film unexpectedly offers a critique of America’s obsession with cars. Needless to say, Damian’s vast wealth is symbolized by the limousine he rides in, and his leisurely new life is signaled by the sports car placed in his driveway; as the pursued and the pursuers, Eddie and Albright’s thugs are constantly driving cars; and at one point, the opponents even employ their cars as weapons, crashing into each other in a scene that bizarrely recalls Mad Max: Fury Road (review here). With cars on their mind, characters even trivialize the experience of entering a new body by repeatedly likening it to driving a new car: one of Eddie’s first comments after waking up is that his body “has that new body smell”; when Eddie learns that his body had a previous occupant, Albright’s employee Anton (Derek Luke) makes light of the situation by saying, “You thought you were buying a new car,” but instead “it has a few miles on it”; and when one character is wounded shortly after getting a new body, he says, “The first time I take it for a spin, I get a scratch on it.” But if people are like cars – useful but disposable vehicles – it becomes easier to justify the homicides that Albright’s procedure requires.
Overall, while a film with many distinctive features, Self/less is ultimately similar to The Lazarus Effect, The Age of Adaline, and other films involving immortality in one central respect: it is a cautionary tale, advising viewers that immortality is a curse, not a blessing, a condition that its victims long to escape. This film’s particular version of that message is that seeking immortality is selfish, and it is ultimately far more rewarding to be selfless, like Mark and Eddie Kittner. Whether this represents timeless wisdom, or a tired rationale for the unavoidable mortality we now must endure, may only be determined at that expected future time when scientists actually achieve human immortality.