Last week, I got very angry at the nearly-universally-panned Tarsem Singh film Self/less for squandering a good science fiction premise in a morass of bland fight scenes. It’s a premise that should have raised countless, thought-provoking questions about relationships, aging, income inequality, and what makes a life worth living. As it is, the most fun I had with Self/less was using it as an excuse to watch two far better identity-swapping movies, 1966 thriller Seconds and 2015 indie film Advantageous — and a chance to map out what the perennial sci-fi trope actually means.
Stories about putting our own minds in another body tend to split into two distinct and nearly opposing themes. As soon as the first trailer for Self/less dropped, it immediately called to mind the 2011 comedy The Change-Up, which is also about Ryan Reynolds switching bodies with an older man. But The Change-Up is part of a very specific subset of comedy — call it the Freaky Friday genre (as, naturally, TV Tropes does). Whether they’re crass or poignant, these are ultimately stories about empathy, supernatural successors to Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper. The actual phenomenon of the switch is explained with some variation of "a wizard did it," and the central hook is watching characters alternately learn about and screw up each others’ lives.
People in Self/less don’t swap minds so much as destroy them. Ben Kingsley’s character isn’t giving anything back, he’s just moving from a dying husk to a fresh one. It’s an ultimately boring version of a nearly infinite number of far weirder and more effective science fiction and horror stories. There are echoes of it in Richard K. Morgan’s Altered Carbon, in which minds can be downloaded to different bodies or backed up on servers — under certain circumstances, you can lose your own body to a rich buyer, who can effectively live forever by swapping "sleeves." Or in Harlan Ellison’s Mefisto in Onyx, a piece of hardboiled horror about a man who can "shrike" from body to body. Even H.P. Lovecraft toys with it, taking the idea of the old possessing the young to its logical and incredibly creepy conclusion in "The Thing on the Doorstep."
Moving from a dying husk to a fresh one
You could say there’s something Lovecraftian about the whole idea of the old coming back again and again to colonize the young, but the trope as a whole is a lot bigger than that. It’s also not, ultimately, what Self/less wants to be about. Self/less is a mid-life (or, technically, end-of-life) crisis film, about a man who’s found traditional success but wishes he could go back to the simple physical pleasures of youth. It's much more directly comparable to Seconds, which actually isn’t about swapping bodies at all — just changing them.
Aside from an extended nude grape-stomping scene – which is exactly as weird as it sounds — Seconds could easily pass as a film-length episode of The Twilight Zone. For the most part, it has the same tense, methodical pacing, and it covers a familiar Twilight Zone theme: the aging, misunderstood white-collar man who gets a second chance at life and should be very careful what he wishes for. In this case, he’s a man named Arthur Hamilton (played by then-blacklisted actor John Randolph) with a loveless marriage and a distant daughter. He’s invited to a mysterious agency known only as The Company, where he reluctantly agrees to extreme plastic surgery and a new, glamorous life as a painter with the face and physique of Rock Hudson.
The Company turns out to have even darker secrets than the body-snatching startup of Self/less, but it’s notable how passive and predictable both protagonists end up seeming in their second lives. In Self/less, it seems unintentional, but it’s the whole point of Seconds — when Hamilton has a chance to make his dreams come true, the main problem he encounters is that he doesn’t have any dreams at all. It’s like the surrealist nightmare version of Babbitt.
Self/less and Seconds both play on a specifically and stereotypically male vision of recapturing youth, complete with wild parties and beautiful young women. That’s what makes Advantageous, which premiered on Netflix last month, so interesting. Despite being more explicitly sci-fi — and much more concerned with futuristic technology and world-building — than either of those films, it’s in some senses the most realistic take on a world where you can trade in your body for a newer model. And it’s written with the understanding that where men might enjoy being young again, women aren’t allowed to get old in the first place.
Gwen, the protagonist of Advantageous (played fantastically by the film's co-writer Jacqueline Kim) is a middle-aged biotech firm spokeswoman and a single mother. When the firm starts testing ways to transfer consciousness, Gwen becomes their first subject — not because she’s unhappy with herself, but because she can only keep her job by being younger and more generically beautiful. There’s nothing overtly sinister going on, but the whole thing is tinged with shades of The Stepford Wives and The Handmaid’s Tale. Unlike those stories, though, the pressure to stay young and beautiful isn't a product of retrograde male oppression — there are few men in the movie at all — but instead stems from the price of living in the upper-middle-class ecosystem, just one stumble or imperfection away from being left behind.
Body-swapping stories aren't so much about living forever as they are about what we’d give up to become something better — and who gets to decide what "better" really means. In the end, it's just an incredibly literal metaphor for drastic change or dispossession, and that’s what makes it so flexible, even when it’s applied to less-than-perfect narratives. Writers and filmmakers will likely continue exploring it in the abstract until the metaphor becomes real technology — hopefully in its least obviously evil form.