Several notable sci-fi releases from this year have imagined the character of the inventor-as-villain—the extreme visionary who, after becoming consumed by their own idea, ends up violent and destructive. In Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, a bearded tech-company mogul (Oscar Isaac) creates a hidden, forested shelter in which he can conduct his artificial-intelligence experiments without compromise or distraction. But his isolation proves damning, turning Isaac’s Nathan Bateman into an unstable drunk whose only remaining use for humans is as amusing puzzle-pieces in his closed-door trials. In Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland, the leader (Hugh Laurie) of the eponymous think-tank for the world’s greatest minds (a nice thought) similarly descends into wickedness when he comes to accept the total annihilation of the Earth’s population as a prerequisite for scientific advancement. This link between intellectual brilliance and emotional volatility has a long history in the movies, from the ill-fated Rotwang of Metropolis (1927) to Kevin Bacon’s invisible killer in Hollow Man (2000) and even to—less intriguingly—the digitized scientist played by Johnny Depp in the ludicrous Transcendence (2014).
The latest work to add to this lineage: Tarsem Singh’s Self/less. Set in a present-day-like America, the movie’s genius-villain comes in the form of a dapper, glasses-wearing prodigy (Matthew Goode) who has realized a miraculous—albeit dangerous—technology called “shedding,” a process by which a physically ailing person can transfer their still-functioning consciousness into a sterling new body. The sickly subject under consideration in Self/less is Damian Hayes (Ben Kingsley, using a profoundly weird New York accent), a cancer-stricken real-estate billionaire prone to bouts of hot-tempered hostility. Over dinner with his closest friend (Victor Garber), he trashes a professional newcomer who was overheard saying degrading things about him. Likewise, Damian’s attempts to patch things up with his estranged daughter (Michelle Dockery) turn sour when she rejects his offer of financial assistance and he dismisses her green-minded non-profit as “a bunch of children throwing a tantrum.” When Damian at last retreats to his Manhattan palace—a cave of golden walls and pillars looming over the city—Kingsley’s grim silence and the setting’s grandiose emptiness indicate the pointlessness of the character’s monetary success.
Self/less, written by the brothers Alex and David Pastor, is in large part an uncredited remake of John Frankenheimer’s Seconds (1966), and while Singh’s movie in no way lives up to the measure of Frankenheimer’s, the differences between the two are telling. In Self/less, Damian’s decision to approach Albright (Goode) and request the body-swap treatment is unsurprising and logical: he’s old, sick, lonely, and rich (Albright’s discovery is only an option for the wealthy), so what’s strange about him wanting a fresh start when he’s going to die in six months regardless? Conversely, Seconds—which the screenwriter Lewis John Carlino (A Reflection of Fear, The Mechanic) adapted from a David Ely novel—has the unnerving gall to posit a married, middle-aged, well-employed, ostensibly healthy man (John Randolph) as the subject desirous of new flesh. “I expect to be president of the bank before too long,” Randolph’s Arthur Hamilton announces when asked what he has left to live for. “I have my boat in the summer,” he adds. The response devastates not because Arthur is out of time, but because he’s very much still alive, and he might as well be your neighbor.
While Frankenheimer’s movie is about a relatable (if reasonably well-off) everyman who chooses to ditch out on an enviable, relatable situation—perhaps a reaction to the time period’s growing critique of the normality and consumerism of the 1950s—Singh’s is about a world to which only the wildly rich have access. In Seconds, Frankenheimer draws paranoid terror and even black humor from the dirty, icky nature of the Company, the underground operation that relies on word-of-mouth exposure to inform people of its radical cosmetic service. (Arthur’s recommendation comes from an old tennis pal, played by Murray Hamilton.) After visiting a steamy dry-cleaning outfit and a meat-packing plant in search of the headquarters, Arthur is at last led to the Company’s secretive premises. He is immediately drugged and framed for rape—the latter circumstance providing him with all the more reason to go ahead with the procedure. Additionally, the employees charged with pitching the technology to Arthur make no attempt to come off as clean and dignified: the old guru (Will Geer) in the complex oozes malevolence with his sinister squint, while Jeff Corey—in the more humorous part—chomps down on a plate of chicken while explaining to Arthur the process of framing his death. Corey tears apart the bones and halts his speech to accommodate his chewing. “Excuse me—delicious!” he exclaims at one point. “They have a wonderful way of baking cheese on it so that it gets very crispy.”
The corporation in Self/less, on the other hand, is a sleek, spotless construction, its chilly interiors—bright, dome-like arches; a steely color scheme so monotonous it could function as a personality-free desktop background—reminiscent of the high-tech rooms that populated Singh’s debut feature, The Cell (2000). Unlike Geer and Corey, meanwhile, Goode’s Albright possesses an academic’s air of certainty; he speaks in a calm, almost drowsy cadence, which has the effect of rendering him (in Damian’s eyes, at least) more credible—Albright appears so sure of his own creation that discussing it seems to put him to sleep. (Contrast this with Isaac’s giddy, high-octane bravado in Ex Machina: all he wants to do is drink beer with Domhnall Gleeson and talk about how awesome his A.I. is.) Where the Company in Seconds—viewed from Frankenheimer and DP James Wong Howe’s cuckoo angles—feels suspicious from the start, Albright’s laboratory, like that of Nathan Bateman, at least has the fragrance of something elite and expensive.
Seconds and Self/less deviate most substantially in the material following their respective set-ups. Randolph, in a tortured, galvanizing performance, carries Frankenheimer’s movie for a good forty minutes before his character is sliced and diced into the strapping Rock Hudson. Kingsley, for his part—in a seriously deranged turn worthy of more screen time—is dispensed with rather quickly to make room for Ryan Reynolds as the revamped Damian Hayes. (In another divergence, Frankenheimer shows Arthur’s facial surgery in horrifying detail—stitches, graphs, charts, scalpels carving up skin—while Albright’s technology operates in an orderly, hands-off fashion.) After giving Damian a new name (Eddie Kidner) and backstory (long-deceased parents, early retirement), Albright sets up his new client in a posh New Orleans bachelor pad, where Damian promptly makes a new friend (Derek Luke) on a local basketball court and begins picking up a series of women at the nearby bars and clubs.
Where Seconds allows Arthur the temptation of lust—a stand-out set-piece has Hudson discarding his clothes and joining his new sweetheart Nora Marcus (Salome Jens) in an outdoor, wine-fueled orgy—Self/less takes place in a more removed, alienating climate. In the movie’s most accomplished sequence, Singh stages Reynolds’s sexual conquests in a high-speed montage set to the percussive noise of a New Orleans street band. The diegetic sounds of the flirty exchanges are reverted to near-silence, the street score takes over, and the women are presented as indistinguishable. In this crucial turning point, Singh looks at one possible wish-fulfillment angle motivating the shedding technology and exposes it as unsatisfactory. The constant sex not only fails to bring Damian happiness—it doesn’t even provide all-consuming excitement, as it does for Hudson. Where, in a previous, more energetic Singh movie, a moment like this might have been seized as an opportunity for flamboyant visual expression, these one-night stands are instead regarded as dull.
Singh maintains this detached gaze as the twists of the narrative unfold; the big one, which comes early, is that the body of Eddie Kidner was not manufactured from scratch, but was instead bought by Albright’s company from an ex-Marine who needed the money for his daughter’s medical treatment. Damian’s recent hallucinations, then, are not standard episodes of post-surgery trauma, but flashes of memory originating from the new body’s previous owner. Albright tries to cover this up by providing Damian with a regular supply of red pills that, if taken once a day, nullify the intensity of the hallucinations, reducing them bit-by-bit until the original owner’s memory is gone completely. But Damian, deducing that the visions he’s having—of a mother (Natalie Martinez) and her little girl (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen), of war-zone combat, of a field in a rural town—have some basis in reality, travels in search of the source of his hallucinations.
He meets the wife and daughter in Missouri and confirms that his new physical shell—as opposed to being a blank-slate form—once belonged to a separate, living person. In a sudden burst of conscience, Damian seeks to use this information to save and protect the wounded family—a development that doesn’t sit well with Albright, who prefers to erase anything or anyone willing to block the progress of his business. Albright’s squad of employees (including, it turns out, Luke’s New Orleans basketball buddy) sets their focus on killing Damian and the family, a pivot that Singh realizes with spurts of crisp carnage. The violence here isn’t grotesque, stylized, and labored-over in the manner of earlier Singh movies—the bullets are swift and instantaneous, sending bodies to the ground.
The rigid distance and cold amorality of its opening hour represents the best of Self/less; coming from a pomp-minded director like Singh, who in Immortals (2011) directed Mickey Rourke to snack on random foods while spouting lines like “What I want is the Epirus Bow,” the lack of wit and self-indulgence is unexpected. And it’s not as if the material necessitates such stern treatment—the exploration of the mind is right in line with The Cell and The Fall (2006), both movies in which Singh embraces ridiculousness and over-the-top graphic assaults. Furthering the stifling of sentiment and feeling is the nature of the performances: where Rock Hudson pulled off the almost surreal feat of channeling John Randolph’s body language and emotional demeanor in Seconds, Ryan Reynolds’s Damian bears no resemblance (emotional, physical, psychological) to Ben Kingsley’s aging plutocrat. The result is a movie that feels split in two, between a suitably alienating sci-fi thriller and a predictable on-the-run action movie. But even in this second half, Singh brings moments of visual grace: In one flooring gesture, the director makes visible the surgical scar on the daughter’s chest as she and Reynolds play in Garber’s swimming pool in a moment of reprieve from the deadly chase. This image, which resonantly speaks to both the fallibility and the strength of the human body, stuns due to its indirect presentation: no prior information about the girl’s illness has created the specific expectation of a chest scar, and neither she nor Damian comments about it in the scene. Singh just places the image there, in the middle of a passage of delightful father-daughter bonding, and the combination of shock and uplift is truly inspired.
In a friendly inversion of the morbid gut-punch ending of Seconds, Self/less concludes on a vision of lame optimism, with genius-villain Albright’s death and with the safe, happy family coming together on a beach. This lands the movie closer to Tomorrowland than Ex Machina on the year’s sci-fi spectrum. In Tomorrowland, Laurie’s Nix longs for a setting in which the most ambitious thinkers can play out their fantasies and ideas without consequence, a sentiment echoed in Self/less when Albright hypothesizes: “I wonder how the world would look today if some of the greatest minds that have ever walked the Earth were given at least 50 more years to live.” In all three movies, then, creation is a grave responsibility, as well as a cause for excitement and celebration, yet there is a combined, cumulative fear of what could happen if someone like Nathan, Nix, or Albright—people who prioritize advancement over all else—landed in a position of power. The route to heroism, in these films, is either by defeating the evil inventor or becoming a kindler, gentler version of the same.