(M) Directed by Tarsem Singh
Starring Ryan Reynolds, Ben Kingsley
by Mark Hadley
Imagine you could lead a better life – what would that look like for you? Younger? Pain free? A guarantee of many years ahead? Self / Less conjures a world where all of that is possible. The only catch is your gain comes at someone else’s loss. But what this science-fiction thriller doesn’t tell its viewers is that this is exactly the sort of decision they are making every day.
Self / Less stars Ben Kingsley as the hard-nosed developer Damian, who has spent decades becoming New York’s undisputed property king. He enters the story as the 21st century equivalent of the rich man in Jesus’ parable who decides to “… tear down my barns and build larger ones,” only to discover God has put a time-limit on his life. Damian has learned from his doctors that he is likely to be dead from cancer in a matter of months.
Faced with his mortality, the growing pain associated with his condition and an unreconciled relationship with his daughter, Damian begins investigating a secret treatment called ‘shedding’. Albright, a suave scientist played by Matthew Goode, explains that his technicians are able to help Damian shed his old body by transferring his mind into the brain of a healthy, lab-grown human. Of course the process is ‘highly selective’ – read expensive – but what’s $250 million to a billionaire with one foot in the grave? Damian decides to pay for his second chance at life, but you know what they say about offers that seem too good to be true… When he emerges from the procedure as Ryan Reynolds, Damian discovers the body he’s bought into might have cost someone else everything they had to give.
Self / Less follows in the footsteps of a dozens body-swapping films ranging from Freaky Friday to Hot Chick. In fact this is the second body-swap for Ryan Reynolds who tried on someone else’s frame for size in 2011’s The Change-Up. This plot device is the cinematic equivalent of walking a mile in another man’s shoes and is often milked for laughs. However Self / Less has a socially minded lesson to teach.
The body Damian inherits belonged to a man who surrenders his life in exchange for health-care for his dying daughter. This twist allows director Tarsem Singh to underline that his protagonist’s privileges come at the expense of those least able to afford them. For the well-heeled western viewer it raises questions about the social inequalities that accompany so many of our own advantages. Christian NGOs like World Vision have been working to raise our awareness about the human costs associated with our special coffee blends and chocolate treats. Like us, Damian tells his accusers he “… never wanted anyone to suffer!” However Self / Less reminds us that though science may make all manner of promises, in a world where 10% of the population possesses 85% of the world’s wealth it’s usually the poorest who pay the bill. Yet Self / Less also has a lesson closer to Jesus’ parable.
Albright describes his ‘shedding’ service in altruistic terms:
“We offer humanity’s greatest minds opportunity to fulfill their potential.”
– the underlying assumption being there’s no potential for a human in death. However Jesus’ parable makes it clear the acknowledgement of our mortality offers an opportunity for great gain. Jesus says his rich man died a fool because he didn’t realise that worldly wealth only lasted a short while and,
“This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.” 1
Self / Less offers Damian the chance to gain a new lease on life, but lose his soul in the process. On the big screen the right choice is easy to see, but in our own lives it’s strangely obscured. Yet the approach of death can actually assist us in achieving our greatest potential. If we realise our own spiritual poverty we can find lasting riches with the God from whom all good things come.