Why 'Self/less' Needs A Better Past To Build A Better Future
It's a shame Ben Kingsley doesn't have more of a mustache in Tarsem Singh's new science fiction thriller Self/less. If he had one long enough to twirl menacingly, if he was playing that kind of outsize stereotype, at least he'd be able to clarify exactly what sort of role he's meant to fulfill. The script certainly suggests his character, Damian Hale, is a sort of villain: He's a ruthless, mega-rich industrialist who begins the film by staging a fancy lunch just to humiliate a younger businessman. Then he makes what's clearly the latest in a long series of attempts to buy the love of his estranged political-activist daughter. On paper, he's not a nice guy: He's condescending and judgmental, with only one meaningful friendship and an echoing void for a life.
But Kingsley plays him with soulful regret and a warm weariness. And his sins, such as they are, are minor: He's more mildly unkind than actually ruthless. He could just as easily be a misunderstood man who's always wanted to do the right thing. It's never clear who Damian is meant to be at the outset, or how the story sees him. He's a gently benign shadow.
Ambiguity in thrillers can be a rare and great thing: The ideal for smart film fans is a movie that doesn't over-explain, or try to hold the audience's hand with a sweaty, anxious grip. But a story so subtle that it doesn't make a statement can undermine a film. And vagueness doesn't work at all in a film that's so clearly about a transformation arc. Some of the changes Damian goes through in Self/less are physical: The film's initial hook is that he's dying of cancer, until a shadowy organization offers to move his mind and memories into a fresh new body for a mere $250 million. Damian is told his new body was grown for him in a vat, but once he's actually running around as a young, fit man (and being played by Ryan Reynolds), he starts having flashbacks to what appears to be the former life of his new body. Once he starts investigating, he finds people who were badly hurt by choices he didn't know he was making. And then he starts taking actions that are — cue knowing, chuckling "Oh right, the title of the film" moment — profoundly selfless.
Somewhere in this muddled, chase-heavy, curiously anonymous movie is the spine of a great story about that mustache-twirling villain type who realizes that with a great body comes great responsibilities. Or to be less flip, it's the story of someone who isn't satisfied with his life, and finds to his surprise that he can start over not just superficially, with young muscles and a young libido, but in a larger, more meaningful way. The film does occasionally point in this direction, as he starts bonding with a young girl in the way he wishes he'd bonded with his daughter. But because Damian himself starts as such a blank, the big changes in his life barely register as a change. Mathematically, an arc can be drawn with three points. He's missing the first one, the origin point. Who is he before he becomes something different?
Cinematic science-fiction stories love big transformations, especially ones that come quickly and go to extreme places. The entire genre is generally about what a major technological or conceptual change in the world would do to people, to society, or maybe just to an individual person. But getting to the hook in a science-fiction film fast enough to keep audiences involved often means rushing past the opening. Recently, Ex Machina started in medias res, with hapless protagonist Caleb introduced in the opening shot as he gets the message that will change his life. The film takes no time to establish who he is before he heads off on his journey to meet a reclusive genius and a newly established artificial intelligence. Mad Max: Fury Road re-introduces the title character to a new generation in the middle of action, as he flees and fights his would-be captors. For that matter, it handles most of its other introductions the same way: Imperator Furiosa doesn't get a series of quiet establishing conversations before she kicks off the first of many raging, wild chase scenes.
And looking back just a little further, the kinetic tech-fantasy of 2014's Lucy also made a point of introducing its protagonist barely a couple of minutes before the action starts. As far as audiences are concerned, her character is little more than a tight dress and a loud jacket before she becomes an unwilling drug mule, and then, when the drugs release inside her, the next step in human evolution. All three of these protagonists (and many of the subsidiary characters around them) have arcs within their films: They each face a crisis that requires redefining themselves. The difference is that their stories are all more about the aftermath than the lead-up.
In all three of these movies, characters are allowed to define themselves through action. Caleb reveals himself through his initially cautious, patronizing conversation with the AI Ava. Max and Furiosa explain who they are through the battles they pick and the ways they choose to fight them. Lucy stops being a person early in her story, and what she was becomes irrelevant as she transcends human thought and personality. In each case, leaving their histories blank works as a choice because these characters are so extreme and specific, going to such outlandish and personal ends to deal with their situations. In each case, it's suggested that their present situations make their histories. The present is what matters, because their present redefines them.
And that approach might have worked with Self/less if it weren't so openly, fundamentally about the radical changes Damian is going through. Conceptually, everything in the film is about how he discarded one life in order to take up another. Everything he does in the present is in some way rooted in his struggle to escape his history. But everything that's so relevant and problematic for him, everything he's struggling to let go of or transcend, is ill-defined and glossed-over for the audience. He's redefining who he is out of guilt that the viewers can't possibly share. It seems unlikely that a man ruthless enough to create such a vast financial empire, at the cost of destroying his own family, would concern himself as closely with strangers as Damian does over the course of the film. "Why would he do any of this?" is a more pressing question than "How will he get away?" — which becomes a serious narrative problem for any story.
None of which would matter if Damian's present circumstances in Self/less, on the run from his body's past and devoting himself to saving other people's lives, seemed as unique and striking as the action in these other recent films. But the story bogs down in familiar chases and fights, shot without any particular concept or point of view behind them. The only significant thing about Damian as a character is the relationships he builds during the film, and those have to exist in a vacuum. He has accoutrements—an empire and an angry daughter, an old business friend, a peanut allergy—rather than an actual character.
And that's regrettable, because deep under the skin of this shrug of a movie is a solid metaphor rooted in an appealing fantasy. Self/less is already about several types of wish-fulfillment. It's about the dream of being rich, powerful, and functionally immortal. It's about the dream of starting over, with the wisdom of age, but with a young, strong, attractive body. It's about atoning for past mistakes and finding ways to revitalize broken relationships. It's just not about a relatable, or even interesting, character doing any of these things.
Maybe it didn't need a mustache-twirling cartoon villain. But it needed something with that level of solidity and specificity. Some stories need to have a past in order to have a future.