As seen through the picture window of the palatial penthouse palace of Damian Hayes, all the vibrant life of New York City stagnates, beyond his reach. A billionaire property developer, his money cannot mend his relationship with his daughter who has turned her back on her inheritance to become an activist working at a city cooperative, nor find a cure for the aggressive cancer which will kill him within six months.
But Damian is not someone who sits still or allows obstacles to stand in his way, no matter how daunting, and for those with sufficient money and contacts there may be other options; a business card for Phoenix Biogenic with the cryptic message scribbled on the back, “They can help you,” and a phone number beneath.
Meeting with the genial Professor Albright, Damian learns about the revolutionary technology which allows “shedding,” the transference of the living consciousness of a human into an inert body artificially grown in the laboratory. Understandably, beyond the financial cost there are other conditions: he must walk away from his old life entirely and the project is to remain secret, but the process is successful, Damian awakening in his new body of a handsome man in his prime.
He is given a new name, a home in New Orleans, and receives weekly visits from Professor Albright who monitors his condition and progress, prescribing medication when “Edward” reports mild hallucinations which the professor describes as side effects of the adjustment to his new body. But as they become more vivid, “Edward” investigates and realises the images he is seeing are actually memories of places he has never been, people he has never met.
Like Richard Matheson’s The Box, filmed by Richard Kelly in 2009, where there has been a life changing transaction there will always a cost, and there is little to David and Àlex Pastor’s script beyond the twist which, as Albright implies, Damian may already have been subconsciously aware of but preferred not to push the evasive Professor on as it would have complicated his own desire for survival.
The quest for immortality has long been a theme of science fiction, through extreme medical interventions as in Joe Haldeman’s The Long Habit of Living (also known as Buying Time), though here the mechanism and the goal almost parallels that of Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse, an endless supply of new bodies to the rich, powerful and connected.
With Iron Man 3‘s Ben Kingsley as Damien, gazing at everything as though it might be the last time he sees it, and soon-to-be Deadpool Ryan Reynolds as “Edward,” the lead performances are individually good but have little to link them, Reynolds carrying no mannerisms or speech patterns of Kingsley’s portrayal of the man who now inhabits his body, though he avoids the crashing discontinuity of Noel Clarke trying to convince he’s inhabited by Brian Cox in The Anomaly.
Filling out the central trio as Professor Albright is Matthew Goode, as reserved and measured here as he was in Stoker, playing the lives of others as though they were chess pieces, data points in an ongoing experiment rather than lives. With the premise forming the whole of the plot the narrative is linear, the main surprise being that despite this it manages to maintain a constant pace and tension for the near two hour running time.
When the film relocates to New Orleans the rhythm of the jazz sets the pace of the film and the carefree new life “Edward” hopes to enjoy, and although it’s stylish it’s not in any way stylised. Instead it’s an understated departure for director Tarsem Singh, closest in concept to the psychological explorations of his 2000 thriller debut The Cell though with no overtly fantastical sequences or prominent design elements it could not be further in execution.
Like Danny Boyle or Robert Wise before him, there is no through-line to his work, each project notable only for its technical precision; without knowing this was a Tarsem film, there is no indication in the content or presentation to connect it to the post-modern fairytale of Mirror, Mirror or the ambitious but dry mythological epic Immortals, but while it couldn’t be more different it’s undoubtedly his most engaging film since the unparalleled brilliance of The Fall.