Cinephilia: Self/Less fails to be philosophical

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Donald Davidson is casually going for a stroll in a swamp when — bang! — a flash of lightning comes down and kills him. Another bolt carrying all of Davidson’s DNA hits the swamp and creates his perfect replica: Swampman. If the naturalist and materialist were correct, Swampman would go on to finish writing Davidson’s essays as though nothing had happened.

This famous philosophical thought experiment — an imaginary situation that examines the consequences of a theory — seeks to support the dualists’ view that personal identity is not identical with anything physical.

I mention this thought experiment in relation to Tarsem Singh’s new science fiction film Self/Less for three reasons. First, it’s a really strong argument against those that think personal identity is solely a cause of the material body and not the result of an immaterial mind with memories and consciousness.

Second, the best and most thought-provoking science fiction is like a thought experiment. Freed from the constraints of natural laws, filmmakers are free to imagine paradoxical and absurd consequences that stem from certain philosophical theories.

Third, Self/Less, the story of a dying rich man, Damian (Ben Kingsley), who wants to save himself by transferring his mind into another body (Ryan Reynolds), engages with the philosophical debate alluded to by Swampman.

It’s a film which, on the surface, seems to simply be a thought experiment sci-fi, but Self/Less abandons philosophical inquiry after a fascinating opening hour in favour of a more generic genre film with predictable guns and car chases. This is a dumb film that begins by engaging with some very smart ideas.

I am conflicted. I recognize that Self/Less’s screenplay by David and Alex Pastor could have lent itself to a more complex and cerebrally thrilling film, yet I’m stuck evaluating the one with a safer, more mediocre narrative. For all the promise of the first act, Self/Less would rather be just another man-on-the-run thriller and should therefore be evaluated as such.

The director, Tarsem Singh, has made bad films before, but never a bad looking one, and this is no exception. With a background in music video direction, his imagery is always distinct, unique, and stylized, and his previous films all take place in fantastical worlds. What’s interesting about Self/Less is how he shoots and edits an imaginative film with a more grounded framework. The narrative may ignore the higher realms of science fiction for conventional beats, but the direction is far from generic or lazy.

Singh pays attention to architecture and the emotional responses it elicits: a gold-plated apartment in New York city reeks of cold detachment; an exotic mansion in New Orleans feels like a second chance at life; the underground lab where Damien’s consciousness is transferred into another body is sinister and shady, but also exciting and futuristic. If his characters are sometimes stoic, Singh’s visual energy expresses the feeling that his characters lack.

Simple hand-to-hand combat sequences display a careful attention to space. Montages that are used to efficiently progress the narrative are expressions of the protagonists’ subjective experience. Many scenes in this film don’t work on an intellectual or narrative level, but their visceral intrigue comes from the inspired bravado of the aesthetic.

In many ways Self/Less works like a muddled non-narrative experimental film: any attempts at plot are pointless and the ideas are hard to follow and half-baked, but the intrigue comes from experiencing how the filmmaker can paint rapturous imagery with juxtapositions of light, movement, time, and music. I would have preferred to see an adaptation of Donaldson’s Swampman, but you will see worse and less visually inspired films this summer.