Innovation

Self/less: Focus on sci-fi fantasy body switching for eternal youth

Self/less, which opens today, deliberately focuses less on tech and more on the age-old drive for eternal youth.

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Ryan Reynolds stars as young Damian in Gramercy Pictures' provocative psychological thriller "Self/less."
Image: Alan Markfield

These days, it's all about the upgrades. You don't have to be a first-adopter too long for the latest iPhone or wait in line for one (no matter what shame spiral it sends you into). You can vie for the window office, wait-list better-section season tickets, or, like Donald Trump and Billy Joel, move on to younger model wives. There are certainly enough arenas to hope for what you perceive as a better version.

Once the new version of any tech is announced, your heart races. You can't download it fast enough. No matter how much you actually use, suddenly, your computer isn't fast enough, and doesn't have enough storage. The same applies to your movie-going expectations. Each subsequent, seemingly endless, too-close-together remake of "Spider-Man," "Superman," "Batman" and "The Hulk" better offer some astoundingly new technology. The 10 years between the Jessica Alba "Fantastic Four" and the Kate Mara one, which opens later this summer, better employ technology to make your head spin. You do not believe there should be a remake if the special effects are not significantly better.

"Body switching" (to use the simplest terminology) movies have fascinated the "what ifs" for a long time. Whether a character is shown morphing into another, or whether the switch depicts one character suddenly in another's clothing, the end goal is for the audience to immediately know a switch has taken place.

If you saw Ryan Reynolds' 2011 "Change Up," where he switched bodies with Jason Bateman (and fret not if you didn't, you aren't alone), here's what you saw: Reynolds waking up and finding out he's actually Bateman's character in Reynolds' body. That's it.

So, if you're expecting in "Self/less" to see some serious special effects, as Sir Ben Kingsley transforms into Reynolds, this isn't the movie for you. Despite the very-future forward concept of shifting consciousness from an old body to a new one, Tarsem Singh's ("The Cell," "The Immortals") movie has little-to-no special effects, and the effects employed could've been in a "Twilight Zone" episode. In other words: Do not look for a "wow" technological special-effects factor, because you will not get it in "Self/less."

"From the moment we are born, we begin to die." Janne Teller, Nothing

Rather, "Self/less" focuses on the ever-intriguing notion of immortality, of taking all of the years of knowledge and experience, and placing all of that heady history into a fresh shell (body). It's an intellectual examination and has a minute percentage of the SPFX of Singh's previous work.

Fighting the aging process

Despite advances in life extension, we can't fight — yet — the aging process. Nor can we let go of the romantic notion of aging backwards (and don't cite "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," because that was a 1922 short story, as clever as it is). The glass half-empty folks lament we are dying daily. With each day we get older. And, while initially it happens slowly, our bodies, all sinew, tissues and organs, start breaking down more quickly. For most, it happens too soon, and with startling rapidity.

Damian, the lead character in "Self/less," isn't thinking about Janne Teller's quote as he amasses his aristocratic fortune. Despite his extraordinary monetary blessings, Damian (here played by Ben Kingsley) lacks love and affection, and is estranged from his liberal, social-activist daughter Claire ("Downton Abbey's" Michelle Dockery). Moreover, he is so frighteningly aware of his own immortality, he knows that he will die — and not in the far future. For Damian, death is imminent. Although he isn't sure he believes it, he hopes the promise of an upgrade is possible.

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Damian Hale (Sir Ben Kingsley) undergoes a radical medical procedure in "Self/less."
Image: Alan Markfield

It is that hope — of a life extension with great vibrancy or the potential for immortality — that is the crux of "Self/less."

Given the tremendous opportunity to transfer a fully intact consciousness out of a body breaking down, would you take it? Such an actual transformation will become an eventuality, posits neuroscientist Dr. Charles Higgins, a professor who runs the neuroscience lab at the University of Arizona and "Self/less" science technologist.

But cool your jets, because, realistically, Higgins says, "while it's feasible in the fullness of time," due to discoveries and our "much better understanding of what goes on in the brain," it's not likely to happen for another century. When it does happen, he speculates, it could make the age-old quest for eternal youth a reality. The key is simple, and lies in the study of the brain, the "seat of personality, consciousness, self, knowledge and procedural skills," and an "understanding of the brain and the whole body holistically is necessary."

Tools to make it happen

For now, "it's not clear" where the device or tool to make such a process will happen, but Higgins points out the groundwork has been laid, starting in 1959. "It's the most complex thing humankind can do [shifting consciousness from one body to another]; we could be talking about a few centuries [for the eventuality], or we could get lucky, something could happen in 20 to 40 years ... but my bet will be on the longer side. I'm putting my money on that the secret will be understanding the brain further. Trying to understand the brain, that's the fastest way [to get there], but we're still decades, if not a century away, from fully understanding what is going on, [and] to take that understanding, the cognition and put it into another living body."

Body switching is a popular subject

Whether depicted as sentimental or science fiction, upgrading to a younger body has been the subject of numerous novels and movies.

Many films simply depict the hapless lead suddenly becoming a younger version of themselves: "Peggy Sue Got Married" (1986), "17 Again" (2009), "Seventeen Again" (2000) or, alternately, an older version of themselves, with the goal to make things better in their "present:" "Big" (1988), "13 Going On 30" (2004). It should be noted: these films are comedies, as were the parent/child body-mind switches "Like Father, Like Son" (1987) and "Freaky Friday" (1976 and 2003), as well as the opposite sex transformations: Vincente Minnelli's 1964 comedy classic, "Goodbye Charlie," Blake Edwards' failed 1991 "Switch" and the saved-only-by-Anna Faris 2002 "The Hot Chick." Transformations in these films are magically inexplicable, without too many special effects or technical wizardry. It's as though filmmakers realize the enormity and gravity of the changes are enough of the fantastical.

Body switching is ripe fodder for filmmakers. Consider, if you will, this range of even more movies, which have tackled the topic, in comedy: "All of Me" (1984) and "Dream a Little Dream" (1989); in the supernatural: "Prelude to a Kiss" (1992) and "The Skeleton Key" (2005); and science fiction: "Seconds" (1966), "Millennium" (1989) and "Freejack" (1992).

The science-fiction films are the precursor to Singh's latest, because they deal with the gravity of the deterioration of the human body and the potential to shift consciousness and the mind into a healthier and fit body.

In the comedic switches, as well as the inexplicable "Prelude to a Kiss" — was there even a difference from Meg Ryan's character as herself and when the elderly man assumes her body? — swapped characters spend the film trying to reverse the effects of the switch (except in "All of Me"). It's played for laughs, without moral, ethical and societal concerns.

Legendary director John Frankenheimer's 1966 metaphoric "Seconds," (which, ironically starred the closeted Rock Hudson, and is based on David Ely's novel) introduces a futuristic agency that offers a wealthy man the chance for reinvention through intensive plastic surgery and psychotherapy. The 1989 "Millennium," based on "Air Raid," a 1977 short story by "hard sci-fi" novelist John Varley, and 1992's "Freejack," based on Robert Sheckley's 1959 novel Immortality, Inc., both use the trope of "snatching" healthy young bodies at the moment of death for a transformed, and, hopefully, an improved future.

It is, in fact, director Geoff Murphy's "Freejack" that shares the most in common with Singh's "Self/less." In both films, an obscenely wealthy businessman aspires to transform his mind and spirit into the healthier and more youthful body of another. Prior to, and right up to the "change," neither man has given much thought to the "body" they're about to occupy, conceivably, for the rest of their (now extended) life.

Deliberate avoidance of tech

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Young Damian (Ryan Reynolds) in "Self/less."
Image: Alan Markfield

Ironically, despite the more than two decades that separate the movies, "Self/less" has significantly less futuristic technology, and this, Singh said, was entirely deliberate. "It was a very conscious decision," he explains. "I'm more interested in the repercussions, the morality, behind the technology." So when it came to the actual "transfer" of the older Damian (Ben Kingsley) into the younger Damian (Ryan Reynolds), Singh was anything but focused on tricky special effects.

Because of the technological grandeur of his previous films, "The Cell," "The Fall" and "Immortals," Singh admits "Everyone is defining me as that guy...but I need to stop that right now. That's not what I do," he insists, and adds, "90%" of his "body of work [in advertising, which he describes as his "real job"] has nothing to do with the fantastical stuff."

For the critical climax in "Self/less" — when the old Damian transforms into the new Damian, but with all of his memories and intelligence and history intact — Singh wanted to be clear of what the action was depicting, but wasn't focused on developing a "grandness." The laboratory where the transformation takes place was ordered from Germany, Singh explains, and with its plastic tubes and mechanics resembles, he admits, a "kind of MRI machine."

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Ryan Reynolds (in foreground) stars as young Damian and Ben Kingsley (in background) stars as Damian Hale in "Self/less."
Image: Alan Markfield

Rather than be bogged down with elaborate technology, bells and whistles, his interest was in making the transfer credible and grounded. He says he worried more about "how long do you leave them inside [the 'transferring' machine]." Ultimately, for both his audience and him, "it's more real," thus more believable.

"Self/less" writer David Pastor, speaking for himself and his brother/writing partner Alex Pastor, said, "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. And although the key to this new life 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."

Alex Pastor added, "The science fiction that David and I like to write explores moral and ethical issues; for "Self/less," we looked at the fantasy that technology could free us from our own death, and what the non-monetary price paid would be. These ideas tied in to universal themes."

Even in real life, it is not an eventuality to be taken lightly. "Technologically, you could clone a second copy of yourself and use it as an organ donor. You might be able to take something of your brain and transfer it over to your other brain. Would you be a new person or transferred into another? All of this poses many ethical issues." In some cases, "just because we can, doesn't mean we should. We are driven by technology and science but we need to think ethically and make the right choices." And such is the dilemma in "Self/less" that Damian Hale faces when he realizes that the body his consciousness has been transferred to is not lab-grown simulated flesh and tissue, but something else entirely, something for which morality plays a major role.

About N.F. Mendoza

N.F. Mendoza is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. She has more than 20 years experience as a journalist covering film, TV, entertainment, business and fashion. Her background includes working as an editor and/or reporter for publications inclu...

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