Allegorical science fiction movies are hard to completely ruin. No matter how absurd the premise (emotions are a crime!) or obvious the criticism (colonialism is bad!), there's usually something well intentioned beneath their hammy monologues and over-the-top action sequences. By that metric, the trailer for Self/less (directed by Tarsem Singh, still best known for The Cell,) seemed to promise a winning combination: perennial action hero Ryan Reynolds, wielding a flamethrower against a creepy scientist who helps the rich consume the poor. But no matter how many cars are crashed and bullets are fired in the name of class consciousness, the ultimate takeaway of Self/less is that immortal billionaires are as dull as everyone else.
Warning: Spoilers ahead.
Damian Hale (Sir Ben Kingsley) is a New York developer so rich that he lives in a gold-filigreed penthouse with a gigantic marble fountain casually installed behind the sofa. He enjoys ruining the lives of over-ambitious young competitors, dislikes historical preservation laws, and tries to buy his daughter's affection by simultaneously funding and insulting her housing nonprofit. In short, he's a ruthless businessman who has more lust for power than for life. But after being diagnosed with terminal cancer, he seeks out a procedure called "shedding," in which aging moguls can secretly have their minds transplanted into idealized vat-grown bodies.
The hidden catch should be blindingly obvious: this isn't an artificial shell, it's a man (Ryan Reynolds) who agreed to have his mind wiped in exchange for a badly needed payout to his family. Albright (Matthew Goode), the mysterious scientist behind shedding, frames it in explicitly elitist terms: Phoenix Biogenic doesn't just save the wealthy, they save the wealthy and worthy, who will use their second life to advance human achievement. It's transhumanism by way of Objectivism, a system where proles voluntarily sell their bodies so that more useful people — those whose talent has naturally brought them riches — can extract the maximum value from them.
It's also a classic genre convention. The hyper-wealthy are most darkly attractive in pulp when they're a little bit like vampires, callous sophisticates using the brute power of their money to sap energy from the young, vital, and poor. Albright embodies chilly scientific detachment and suave persuasion, or at least, he's supposed to. Kingsley's Damian is selfish and manipulative, the kind of person you believe would sacrifice someone else's life to save his own. We don’t spend much time getting to know pre-transition Damian, but from the moment he wakes up in Ryan Reynolds’ body, he drops almost all of Kingsley’s mannerisms and apparently spends several weeks playing pickup basketball and bringing home generically sexy one-night stands from generically cool nightclubs. Movies like Society, a far better and creepier film about class, have fun with the idea that the wealthy are idle and decadent, but Damian's post-transition hedonism belies an embarrassingly bourgeois common denominator, pulled straight from a PG-13 spring break dramedy.
Reynolds doesn't play Damian as a continuation of a specific character so much as a bland amalgamation of thriller protagonists. We only spend a short amount of time with Kingsley's Damian, but we know enough to make it hard to believe that he would suddenly embark on an altruistic, high-stakes quest when he learns the truth about his body. (Damian's host is apparently also a super-soldier, which raises some questions about whether "body donor for fictional Robert Moses" was really his best income option in a pinch.) When the body's original personality starts to surface, the only difference is his shooting prowess.
The film starts with a well-trod but pointed trolley problem — the cold calculation of what a human being is worth. If, as Albright suggests, you could give the world's greatest thinkers another half-decade of life, would any of them try to morally justify killing to get it? Would we trade a human life for another world-changing piece of tech from Steve Jobs? But the film quickly abandons this line of questioning. Shedding, it turns out, is just a sinister retirement package.
Sometimes a movie can be so bad it becomes almost subversive. To its credit, Self/less takes the fictional cliché of deliberately cruel class oppression, and paints it as something more like extreme naïveté or willful blindness — something closer to reality, in other words. At one point, Damian wonders why a revolutionary anti-aging technology is secretly sequestered in a random warehouse, but the whole system only seems feasible if every one of Phoenix Biogenic's privileged clients is willing to avoid asking some extremely obvious questions. There's nothing sexy or alluring about people who use their privilege to invade and occupy someone else's body, if, given the chance, all they really want is a Hollywood frat boy's idea of a good weekend.
A movie about a man with a peanut allergy
Subversive, however, doesn't necessarily mean clever or fun. Self/less is a movie about a man whose most defining characteristic is his peanut allergy, struggling with the memories of another man whose most defining characteristic is throwing incredibly loud punches. And both of those men are played by the same actor. And that actor plays them with roughly the same screen presence he displays as a corpse in a nutrient tube. Gunfights and class politics have never been drearier.
Verge Video: Unboxing Ryan Reynolds' Self/less burner phone