What if you could live forever by transferring your consciousness from body to body? What if you could save your daughter at the expense of your own life? And what if you can abandon all these premises to become a trite Bourne Identity knock-off? Those are just some of the questions presented by Tarsem Singh’s disappointing sci-fi stinker Self/less. (Depending on how well you can “read” trailers, this review contains a fair amount of spoilers.)
At the age of 65, wealthy real estate developer Damian Hale (Ben Kingsley) is mere months away from dying from cancer when he’s presented with the option of “Shedding,” or taking his consciousness and transplanting it into another body. Through a mysterious organization lead by the even more mysterious Albright (Matthew Goode), Hale’s consciousness is to be transplanted into a brand new, younger, healthier body (Ryan Reynolds) that was “grown in a lab.” As Hale gets accustomed to his new self, he gets brief visions of places and people that he has never met or been to before, but he knows that they are more than mere hallucinations. Albright plays coy, so Damian goes on a quest to discover what those visions mean. Turns out he wasn’t given a test tube body, but his operating system (consciousness) was installed into soldier Edward Kitner who signed up to “die” in order to get the money to treat his dying daughter (an annoyingly over-the-top precocious Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen who feels compelled to mewl “daddy” at the end of nearly every line just to beat us over the head with how cute and innocent she is). Thus he’s forced with a choice – continue taking medication to properly format the new hard drive and thus eliminate the remnants of Kitner’s former life or “die” himself.
These premises should theoretically give the filmmakers (in addition to director Singh, it was co-written by David and Alex Pastor) a lot to work with. A work-obsessed old man regains his youth and gets to live the hedonistic life he never got to live because he was concentrating on his business. Or does he try to fix some of the mistakes he made in the past life, particularly with his daughter Claire (a two-scene Michelle Dockery)? Despite some reference to Kitner’s military training becoming muscle memory/instinct, there is significant fodder in the idea of two minds sharing the same body that is never fully explored. If the two can’t share the body, who should have the right to it? Which of the two is forming the connection to the widow Madeline (Natalie Martinez)? And yes, while Damian’s new body belonged to someone else, consider the other side of the equation: Kitner willingly sacrificed his own life in order for his daughter to get the medical treatment she needed. Albright’s company didn’t kidnap him or lie to him about what he was going to have done to him; it was an informed, albeit desperate, decision. There is a lot of moral ambiguity to play around with there.
Then, after about 40 minutes, the film takes the easy route by ignoring all of these and many other interesting concepts. Protagonist = good; Company = evil, so evil that it believes our hero would simply be okay with it. So, for the next hour and a half, we get yet another generic paranoia-fueled action thriller about a man-on-the-run against a mysterious organization that is always two steps ahead of him and thus he never knows whom to trust. There are gunfights, car chases and crashes, betrayals, and all the tropes you expect in this genre. Even with the limitless bounds of science fiction and being helmed by a director who is best known for his visual flourishes, the film becomes yet another in the Safe House, Bourne Identity, Taken line of “average man is really an action hero” films. While the film does present at least one interesting twist on this premise (a henchman switches bodies whenever he’s grievously injured), it’s not played well enough to fully reap the clever dark humor of the situation. And its PG-13 rating (and overall playing-it-safe nature) insures that the film never goes completely off the wall in a good way, like the original Total Recall.
A major component of this movie is the casting, with Ryan Reynolds playing Ben Kingsley in a younger body, but it doesn’t work. One has to wonder how much better the movie would have been had the older/younger actors been more comparable. Going from Kingsley to someone like Benedict Cumberbatch, who shares similar qualities of classiness, intensity, and weirdness. Or transitioning from a Bill Murray type to Reynolds, as both actors have a similar sense of smug sarcasm. Yes the body is different, but the personality should be the same. We know these actors enough from previous roles to know their tics and quirks, so when we see Ryan Reynolds as Damian we should be seeing Kingsley, not Safe House Ryan Reynolds. Or, at the very least, someone in his 60s, not Safe House Ryan Reynolds.
Yet it’s somewhat unfair to blame Reynolds for this when director Tarsem Singh doesn’t bring anything much to the table either. For all of their flaws, his previous films (The Cell, The Fall, and Mirror Mirror) had neat, almost Gilliam-esque design elements. In Self/less, the most remarkable feature is an MRI machine. Even Damian’s hallucinations just amount to quick-cut flashbacks. The action sequences are serviceable-at-best; nothing remarkable, but you can follow what’s happening. However, we do get some decent B-roll of New Orleans and various shots of several really nice mansions, so there’s that.
The Verdict: 2 out of 5
Self/less is yet another disappointing sci-fi film that abandons its interesting ideas about halfway through in order to become a wholly unexceptional action movie, like Elysium, Chappie, or even Tomorrowland. (At least Transcendence attempted to maintain its facade of intelligence and pensiveness to the end). But unlike those other films, which at least tried to remain true to their “science-fiction” roots, Self/less almost completely abandons its origins to give us a tired, redundant thriller. Rather than truly tackling its concepts or providing an interesting character study, it opts instead to paint a black and white world that can only be handled by an action hero adept at shoot-outs.