Director Tarsem Singh talks Self/less
A dying real estate mogul transfers his consciousness into a healthy young body
Who wants to live forever? A bunch of ambitious movie characters.
Juan Ponce de Leon may have been looking for the Fountain of Youth back in the 16th century, but pop culture more recently has offered all sorts of ways to explore immortality, from the search for the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade to pretty much every vampire movie ever.
The new thriller Self/less puts a scientific spin on those themes. Directed by Tarsem Singh (Immortals), the plot centres on wealthy New York industrialist Damian Hale (Ben Kingsley), who is constantly reminded how his cancer-ridden body is failing him.
He reaches a Faustian bargain with a secretive organization run by a mysterious doctor (Matthew Goode): For a mere $250 million, he can have his consciousness implanted into a younger, healthier human vessel (that of Ryan Reynolds) through a state-of-the-art process called "shedding".
Damian's new life goes awry, however, when he begins to have strange visions and learns the morally questionable origins of his buff new body.
"How many times does someone's father say to them, 'Knowing everything I know now, if I could just be in your body ...'? This seemed like a delicious way to represent that," says producer James D. Stern (Looper).
The search for eternal life is a hallmark of movies as diverse as the original Frankenstein, the Brad Pitt drama The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Blake Lively's recent The Age of Adaline and even the Twilight saga, says Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for the entertainment research company Rentrak.
Immortality also knows no boundaries when it comes to genre: Never-ending stories come into play in a light comedy such as Heaven Can Wait, the iconic, weepy Ghost and the cult fantasy series Highlander.
"As human beings, we're often obsessed with the idea of living forever," Dergarabedian says. "This fascination offers an extremely compelling set of cinematic possibilities and a foundation for tragedy, comedy, drama, horror and romance to be explored by filmmakers who try to capture the essence of what it means to be immortal."
The science of shedding in the movie seems a little far-fetched, for sure, and it takes a lot more than just transferring consciousness to put someone's self into a new body, according to Charles Higgins.
Higgins, one of the movie's science experts and a professor of neuroscience and bioelectrical engineering at the University of Arizona, says the whole of a person also includes the enteric (or gut) nervous system, a variety of glands and the spinal cord, which houses fine motor skills such as driving a stick-shift car or playing a guitar.
He figures humans will find a way of prolonging life more than modern medicine already has. "It's fundamentally doable, but will mankind ever give up on immortality? However long it takes us, we'll continue to explore it."
The questions that arise around eternal life as in Self/less are interesting to ask, too, Singh says. The science can get sort of bizarre – and don't get him started on how creepy organ donation is – but he wonders about quality of life.
"Ask young people if they want to live forever, and they always think of it in the wrong sense," says the director, who is 54. "They think of an older guy whose hip's not working. And I'd agree: He doesn't want to live like that forever, either.
"But before his body started committing suicide, he would like to live forever young. That's the answer. Throughout history, people have always thought, 'well, how do you achieve that? Do you have baths in virgin blood?' No one understands the science until you find (a breakthrough)."
With Self/less, it was easy to internalize those themes of immortality, even as a filmmaker.
"It sounds sort of attractive," Singh says. "Coming back in Ryan Reynolds' body? If I'm Ben Kingsley, I think, 'Yeah!'
"You have to have be thankful for what you have. Whether it's the story of Frankenstein or the story of this, you can't mess with Mother Nature. And obviously bad things happen when you try to do it."
Self/less opens in New Zealand cinemas on Thursday, July 23.