With such a talented cast in front of the camera and a truly inventive director at the helm, Self/less should have been a cinematic experience that has you talking about it for days and weeks with the people you saw it with and recommending it to the people you didn’t.
But while it puts an interesting spin on an old debate and delivers a few twists you probably won’t see coming, Self/less in the end just doesn’t live up to its potential. It’s entertaining enough that it should hold your attention for the majority of its running time, but it won’t live much longer than that in your memory or imagination, which is a little ironic, considering its conceptual focus on human longevity and the possibility of immortality.
New York City real estate magnate and power broker Damian Hale (Ben Kingsley), who built his vast fortune and considerable influence all from the ground up in the course of a lifetime of overcoming obstacles and outsmarting rivals, seems to be facing the end as he fights a losing battle against cancer. Never one to be outmaneuvered, however, he takes a meeting with Albright (Matthew Goode), a representative of a company offering the ultimate power play to a very select and elite clientele, the opportunity to literally side-step death by having the mind transferred from a dying body into a younger, healthier one via a process called “shedding.” Keeping the meeting a secret from his longtime friend and business partner Martin (Victor Garber) and his estranged daughter Claire (Michelle Dockery), Damian agrees to the procedure, and in very short order, after his “death” is publicly witnessed, he finds himself looking in the mirror and seeing young, handsome Edward (Ryan Reynolds) looking back.
The transition is not seamless, however. Albright puts “Edward” through a rigorous physical rehabilitation in order to help his mind learn to function within its new confines, and puts him on medication to offset the other “side effects”, which include painful headaches, vertigo, and painfully vivid flashes of foreign images, like daydreams forced into his conscious state. Edward’s physical and medical regimen does its work, and soon he finds himself settling comfortably into a new life and identity enjoying all the pleasures that a vigorous, attractive single man with wealth can enjoy in the city of his “rebirth”, New Orleans.
Only the visions don’t stop, and the images Edward sees feel like more than simple hallucinations or fantasies. Without Albright’s knowledge, he begins to search for the people and places he sees when he misses doses of his little red pills, and the journey down the rabbit hole leads him right to the secret of where his “new” body came from, as well as puts him square in the sights of the nasty folks tasked with guarding that secret and killing anyone who comes close to uncovering it.
Considering the projects he’s undertaken in the past, Self/less is a very interesting choice of undertaking for director Tarsem Singh, who is perhaps best known for the stylish and often breathtaking visual aesthetic he’s brought to such films as 2006’s The Fall and 2011’s Immortals. Compared to those fantastical journeys into the imagination and mythology, Self/less is a much more grounded film in terms of its visuals, its settings and set pieces far more conventional and “real-world” than what audiences are used to from Singh. That may actually work against the film in terms of expectations fans of Singh’s work may have going into the film, although there are particular touches in the area of production design that they should immediately associate with Singh’s other films thanks to the work of designer Tom Foden, who worked with Singh on Immortals, The Fall, and 2000’s The Cell. Overall, there’s no question that this is a Singh film — his touch is just more restrained here, and because he’s the craftsman that he is, visually it all works.
Where things don’t click nearly as well is in the film’s editing and pacing, as the tension tends to ease and the plot gets bogged down as it progresses toward its resolution. To be fair, what slows things down are scenes scripted by screenwriters David and Alex Pastor to help develop the character of Damian/Edward and make credible his story arc, particularly in terms of his failure as a father in his previous life and how tries to atone for that failure in his new one. The intent seems to be for the film to be as much a character study as it is a thriller, and unfortunately, in this case the two elements don’t mesh quite well enough. It doesn’t help that the film’s action scenes, while capably choreographed and executed, lack any real spark of innovation or energy, a strange occurrence in a Singh film.
What’s also rather surprising is that there isn’t as much continuity between Kingsley and Reynolds in terms of how they physically play the same character. Kingsley’s take on Damian is defined by a manicured rigidity and haughtiness that the character justifies by his clear sense of being the smartest and most capable man in the room, even when his own body is betraying him. Reynolds brings none of that affectation to his version of Edward, and though that might be somewhat appropriate considering his new and extraordinary circumstances as well as the character suddenly being in a situation where he’s sure he doesn’t know everything, one might have expected Reynolds to have incorporated a little of what Kingsley was doing, especially in scenes shared with Garber’s character. But no, Reynolds instead goes with the wide-eyed intensity he usually defaults to when cast in action-thriller roles, and while it’s serviceable, it’s not particularly memorable, especially considering he’s capable of much better.
The performances that do stand out here are the supporting ones. Garber can always be counted on to deliver credible and compelling performances either on TV or on film, and Self/less is no exception. Matthew Goode, who delivered stand-out work in The Imitation Game and also appeared with Dockery on “Downton Abbey” last year, is also very strong playing the antagonist here in Albright, a man of science and reason who genuinely believes in the good intentions behind his work. He thinks he sees in Damian a kindred spirit — a practical individual with a keen mind and the kind of moral flexibility that allows for making this sort of deal and reaping its benefits without asking too many questions — and so his interactions with both Kingsley and Reynolds are informed by a wit and charm afforded by the view of the other as an equal, as opposed to the countless others beneath his notice and unworthy of the gift his procedure offers. Despite the fact that eventually he and Damian/Edward find themselves at odds, he never really comes off as a villain, and that’s a credit to the nuance with which Goode approaches the work.
All that considered, Self/less is a perfectly fine way to spend an afternoon or evening at the movies, provided you’ve seen everything else that’s out there. But it’s also one that you can feel justified in putting off as a rental for home entertainment later this year. There’s enough “good” in it that you won’t regret the time spent in seeing it should you decide to, but if you don’t, rest assured that you didn’t miss out on “great.”
Starring Ryan Reynolds, Natalie Martinez, Matthew Goode, Victor Garber, Derek Luke, and Ben Kingsley. Directed by Tarsem Singh.
Running Time: 116 minutes
Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence, some sexuality, and language.