Self/Less: Crap science, eyebrow acting, and immortality for the 1%

Who wants to live forever?


Film review Director Tarsem Singh has something of a fascination with technology and medicine. His first film, The Cell, posited using a virtual reality mind meld system and his latest, Self/Less, is all about swapping minds though the power of high tech.

Daniel, a cancer-stricken New York property developer (Ben Kingsley), receives an invitation from a shadowy company called Phoenix Biogenic to try a process called shedding. For the bargain price of $250m the team, led by Professor Albright (Matthew Goode), offers to transfer his consciousness into a vat-grown human subject (Ryan Reynolds) so that he can have another go at life.

"Imagine what Steve Jobs would have done with another 50 years on the planet," Albright says in his pitch.

One thermoplastic face mask and a machine that looks like a cross between an MRI scanner and a washing machine later, and the transfer is complete. There are, however, side effects – hallucinations of a pumpkin-shaped water tower and a woman and child.

Albright explains that these are normal, and prescribes the mental equivalent of immunosuppressant drugs and sends the reborn Daniel out to his new home, a luxurious New Orleans townhouse, complete with a gull-winged sports car and a string of bedmates.

But when he forgets to take a dose of the drugs, the flashbacks return, and Daniel decides to do some investigation. A quick Google search for water tower and pumpkin (I wish I was kidding) and he spots the structure, gets the address, and goes to investigate the memories that are surfacing.

Once there, Daniel discovers that all is not as it seems. He has bought someone else's life and inherited some of the body's former occupant's skills, in a manner very reminiscent of the 1935 classic Mad Love.

But before too long goons from Phoenix Biogenic come after him, lead by the delightfully dastardly Anton (Derek Luke – criminally wasted in this film). The film devolves into a familiar chase/revenge saga marred by goons with stormtrooper-like shooting skills and some ridiculously convenient plot twists.

As films go it's an enjoyable bit of fluff. Kingsley's performance is brief but masterful, Goode returns to the kind of amoral genius role he did so well in Watchmen, and Reynolds keeps the whole thing moving along nicely – although he seems to be a devotee of the Roger Moore school of acting involving looking buff and wiggling his eyebrows to show emotion.

But the film is selling itself as a science-based thriller and on that score it falls down badly. The central point – that brain transfer is possible – is barely touched on and there are some gaping plot holes, not least that if Albright had managed to grow bodies in a lab the Nobel Prize committee would have been beating down his door with honors and funding.

At the press screening, Dr. Niren Murthy of UC Berkeley Neuroscience Labs was on hand to discuss the science and admitted that we're not even sure what consciousness is, let alone being able to map it and shift it to a new brain. Most scientific effort goes on extending life, he explained, with an age of around 125 as the target, and that in the short term cryogenics was the best shot for finding out who wins the 2200 Super Bowl.

There are plans for keeping the brain going longer using hosts, such as the 2045 Initiative founded by Russian billionaire Dmitry Itskov. This ambitious plan wants to house brains in robots by 2020 and have fully human holographic avatars a quarter of a century later to finally kill the Grim Reaper.

Making movies about science is always hard – there's not a lot of visual entertainment in research and proper testing takes years, even if the concepts can be fascinating. Self/Less doesn't do the science very well, but it's a passable bit of brain candy that does add some pointed commentary about the American healthcare system and the value of life in comparison to money. ®

Title Self/Less
Director Tarsem Singh
Cast Ryan Reynolds, Natalie Martinez, Matthew Goode, Ben Kingsley, Victor Garber, Derek Luke.
Release date 10 July (UK/US)
More info Movie website

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