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In SELF/LESS, a dying old man (Academy Award winner Ben Kingsley) transfers his consciousness to the body of a healthy young man (Ryan Reynolds). If you’re into immortality, that’s pretty good product packaging, no?
But this thought-provoking psychological thriller also raises fundamental and felicitous ethical questions about extending life beyond its natural boundaries. Postulating the moral and ethical issues that surround mortality have long been defining characteristics of many notable stories within the sci-fi genre. In fact, the Mary Shelley’s age-old novel, Frankenstein, while having little to no direct plot overlaps [with SELF/LESS], it is considered by many to be among the first examples of the science fiction genre.
Screenwriters and brothers David and Alex Pastor show the timelessness of society’s fascination with immortality. However, their exploration reflects a rapidly growing deviation from the tale’s derivation as it lies within traditional science fiction. This shift can be defined, on the most basic level as the genre losing it’s implied fictitious base. Sure, while we have yet to clone dinosaurs, many core elements of beloved past sic-fi films are growing well within our reach, if not in our present and every-day lives. From Luke Skywalker’s prosthetic hand in Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) to the Matrix Sentinal’s (1999) of our past science fiction films help define our current reality to Will Smith’s bionic arm in I, Robot.
The resulting script of the Pastor brother’s own creative take on the timeless theme, is what grabbed the industry’s attention, after first being ignored and eventually making The 2011 Black List: of best unproduced screenplays.
Director Tarsem Singh had been looking tirelessly for the right thriller and with SELF/LESS he found his match. The result of this collective vision is a great example of a genre’s journey from science-fiction to -fact.
Damian Hale (Kingsley) is a billionaire industrialist dying of cancer. Lucky for him, he hears of a procedure called “shedding,” a newfangled process by which one transfers his consciousness into a different body. Albright (Matthew Goode of THE GOOD WIFE) is the dangerously charismatic and brilliant mind behind the secret organization that, for a dozen million or so, can grant this gift of life to folks like Damian. Albright’s, never say die motto, is an offer hard to refuse and Damian certainly does not. While touring the mysterious medical facility, Albright tells Damian he will be receiving, “the very best of the human experience.” The new body (Reynolds) Albright describes as an “empty vessel,” whose sole purpose is to provide new life — to those who can afford it. Damian is sold.
Damian goes through his “shedding” procedure, which has a shockingly chilling realism, resembling a super fancy MRI machine. Upon awakening he finds himself in his new body to which he slowly adjusts, after getting over “that new body smell.”
After a bit of time enjoying his healthy, attractive new body, Damian begins to experience what he is told is a harmless side-effect: hallucinations. What he sees in these episodes – a woman, a young girl, a home, a family – begin to all feel too real. Soon, Damian’s suspicions grow into certainty: these are not random hallucinations; they are images of a past that really happened. In other words, they are memories. But, if the new body was supposed to be an “empty vessel,” whose past is Damian remembering?
Without providing too much of a spoiler (but just in case…SPOILER ALERT!), Damian discovers that his new body was never an “empty vessel” created in a lab. In actuality, his new body had a whole life previous to the procedure. Soon the notion arises, both to Damian and to the viewer: does the life that once owned all these memories, does that man who once had a wife, daughter and an entire life, does he have the change to regain them?
This discovery leads SELF/LESS into the action film realm, which it does quite effectively, complete with shoot-outs, hand-to-hand combat, car chases and yes, even explosions. Like any really good works of science fiction, issues are packaged in an exciting plot buoyed by plausible — albeit futuristic — science.
This is among the reasons SELF/LESS works. It brings up many meaningful issues regarding science and immortality. If people can be saved from disease, age and death will this only be available to those wealthy enough to afford such a procedure? Would there be a selection process where only those deemed “superior” would be given eternal life?
And what would that mean to us all as a society? If Einstein were still alive today, would he have unified gravity with the other forces allowing us all to be traveling around in time machines by now? Would we be receiving iPhone44 by now if the consciousness of Steve Jobs could have been preserved in a healthy body.
The answer to how society may have been affected if anything had gone differently is a definitively impossible question to answer. However, the deeper question, I believe does hold an answer:
Is there an alternative to recycling the genius of the past, and those that we are currently familiar with? Or, can we allow for the possibility that a new genius, perhaps of a mind that will impact society beyond any realm we can currently fathom? Essentially, can we allow new, fresh perspectives in new, never before worn “vessels” to impact even if without the assurance of progress?
For the record I vote for the later. While I admit that is my opinion (as I admit to believing it the the only correct opinion) we must encourage ourselves to all ask these questions, and never be so presumptuous as to think one can ever be fully satisfied with the belief they have discovered every answer or postulated every notion.
Immortality has been the stuff of dreams (and movies and books and plays, etc.,) going far too back to define the exact origin, in addition to the aforementioned FRANKENSTEIN to DRACULA (1931), SLEEPER (1973), and even STAR WARS EPISODE V: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980), in which Han Solo is frozen in Carbonite, all have their unique takes on this topic.
In real life, Dr. James Bedford, a psychology professor at the University of California, became the first person to ever be cryogenically preserved on January 12, 1967. He even left money for a steel capsule and liquid nitrogen in his will.
Many of us have heard stories, such as the urban legend that Walt Disney had himself frozen. (By the way, this happens to be only legend so if you were wondering, know it is false).
While there are the famous instances of the known few as well as the even more infamous myths, there have been far more real-life attempts at immortality than many may know of. Perhaps they have gone unnoticed because these events did not deal with world-renowned “geniuses” or hold great wealth and fame. I cannot say anything for certain, but I can share a personal note here.
My father’s cousin, back in 1968, well before I was born, was cryogenically frozen. Steven had been ill all his 25 years, had found an ad for the Cryogenics Society in a science fiction magazine, and, when he died on an operating table, had arranged to be preserved. I won’t go into the details here, but let’s just say it did not work out (turns out it’s pretty expensive to keep a human being frozen, and being frozen after you’ve already died kind of defeats the purpose). But the fact that it freezes a family’s hope that something may happen to bring their loved one back in the future can be more than just a bit cruel. However, the science behind the actions that, in this case proved exceedingly wrong, does not make the discovery behind the science inherently wrong. In fact it is because of this story I believe more than most, that we must engage, and ask questions now, discuss the ethical, moral and pragmatic ramifications now.
I had the opportunity to sit down with some of the cast and crew to discuss the film and some of the issues it raises.
David and Alex Pastor opened up about how their creative process can often be motivated by their own fears, wishes and predictions. David pointed out that the desires present in Damian are feelings that can resonate with everyone.
I feel that everybody can relate to ‘I wish I had more time’. We wanted to write about a powerful character who has everything but whose body is failing him and who then finds that his money might be able to buy him a new life.
Natalie Martinez, who plays Madeline, a crucial character to the story (sorry, can’t tell you why – you’ll have to see for yourself), told me how she enjoyed doing nearly all of her own stunts. I believed her too: she showed me her arm, pointing to her newest bruises accrued in her latest project, WARRIOR, where she plays a female mixed martial arts fighter.
The film made a wise decision in how it represented the technology at the core of the story. This was not a film intended to provide a lesson on the technologies of the future. The filmmakers chose NOT to pack the film with elaborate, made-up scientific explication. Other films, such as 2014’s LUCY, try using data from the real world to explain the premise of their stories, but this typically only shows a complete lack of faith in the film’s storytelling abilities. Thankfully, SELF/LESS doesn’t fall into that trap.
SELF/LESS makes no unnecessary attempt to have its lead character, Damian,, serve as an example of our collective scientific and technological potential. To do so would have been impractical distracting and ethically irresponsible filmmaking. When a film pretends its science is all actual right now — rather than a “science fiction” that takes off from a base facts — it seeks to have its audience believe in its story for reasons other than filmmaking craftsmanship. That leads to serious misconceptions about science. SELF/LESS, while based in scientific fact, doesn’t need to pretend immortality is a current reality: you believe its story anyway.
Dr. Charles Higgins, an associate Professor in of Neuroscience at the University of Arizona and head of the renowned Higgs Lab, when asked whether the concept of transferring one’s consciousness from one body to another is possible, replied:
It is sure to be science future [not fiction]. It’s just a question of whether it’s 30 years or 300 years.
When I asked David and Alex Pastor how they chose to balance the technological realities with their creative vision they responded that although the “key” to the plot and story is:
A revolutionary new technology, we decided we would not get bogged down in technicalities and would keep our story as more of a fable than anything else. It was the moral consequences that interested us. The science fiction that [they] like to write explores moral and ethical issue…ideas tied in to universal themes.
I agree and appreciated hearing that. Whenever a film can instigate thought and raise questions, the result is typically an effective film. But even more so when a film can do that, all within the confines of an action-packed thriller, demanding your visceral attention as well as your active, intellectual engagement. In the end, what makes SELF/LESS a self-aware, unselfish, ethical piece of effective entertainment is that they used action as a device to propel the moral and ethical questions.
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