Eternal life has always been one of the more quixotic quests we’ve heard about. People dedicating their lives to finding the Holy Grail or Fountain of Youth, only to realize too late that they should have spent their lives actually living them. How do we judge a life well-lived? Is it enough to be missed by many, but reviled by those you consider family? Is immortality ever truly worth its cost? All these questions and more don’t get answered in Self/less, so don’t hold your breath.
Writers Alex and David Pastor don’t quite bring us a novel premise, but they reintroduce one that hasn’t been done in almost 50 years since John Frankenheimer’s stunning film Seconds. The film begins as these films always do: with a dying man. Damian (Ben Kingsley) has lived a long, lucrative life, and he has the fortune to prove it. He is dying, and doesn’t have long to live, but he is willing to try anything to extend his life even a little. A mysterious scientist named Albright (Matthew Goode) promises to have the cure to death by removing the person’s consciousness into an “empty” vessel. Damian agrees and becomes a new man (Ryan Reynolds) and oddly doesn’t even behave the same way he used to, but we’ll get to that. Everything seems wonderful, until Damian gets memories that weren’t his: memories that the pills he received were meant to block out. Through the mental clues, he is able to hunt down the woman, Madeline (Natalie Martinez), and the little girl from his visions. He finds out that his body is not as new as he thought it was. Rich people hate getting pre-owned things, I guess. The only humane aspect concerning these bodies is that each person volunteered in exchange for money or some other gain. For some reason, Damian is not fine with taking the body of a willing volunteer and suddenly feels responsible for everything bad that happened to Madeline and her daughter, including having people now wanting to kill them.
Visual maestro Tarsem Singh directs this film, even though there are practically no signs of his expected visual style anywhere to be seen. The only morsels we receive are near the beginning of the film, when we see the golden decadence of Damian’s home and an upscale restaurant where everything seems curated with care. With Singh, there always seems to be a disproportionate compromise between the artistic imagery and an engaging story. We usually get one, but not the other, with the close exception being The Fall. Typically, the films have favored visual flair over an intriguing story, but Self/less gives us the rare case of an outwardly interesting premise becoming underwhelming, while the anticipated avant-garde style is all but nonexistent. Singh’s signature style over substance approach leaves us with nothing but empty gestures on both sides.
The chase for immortality is not a new one to the sci-fi genre. In fact, it’s a story as old as time itself. At the beginning, Self/less promised the premise new life but ultimately fell dead as the film went on. After a few sci-fi tropes, several clichés, and a very predictable twist, this potentially thoughtful film devolves to a mouth-breathing action-thriller. Talks about man’s mortality? Gone, and replaced with a lot of killing. Revelations about the value of a person’s life? Replaced with ridiculous, reflexive military training that the mind forgot, but for some reason the body remembered. The only nominally clever part in the film was the irony of having most of it take place in New Orleans, where a funeral is turned into a public and open celebration of life. That wasn’t lost on me, but even that felt like it was done as more of a coincidence than any premeditated attempt at depth.
Among the unexplained elements in the film (and there are many), one of the most bothersome had to do with Damian’s transference of consciousness. Aside from a few anachronistic-sounding statements, there is very little personality resemblance in between the older Damian (played by Kingsley) and the younger Damian (played by Reynolds). For everyone else, when consciousness was moved, mannerisms and personal ticks followed them into their new body. This was the case for everyone except Ryan Reynolds. Reynolds reprised his all too familiar role of himself in the film: affable jokester with a heart of gold and abs of steel. This is almost as unfortunate a turn as Singh’s, especially considering Reynolds surprised us earlier this year with his range in the delightfully dark indie film The Voices.
If there is a moral in this film, you’ll be hard-pressed to find it. Like some people, most films want to live forever. In the case of Self/less, it’ll be lucky to last the weekend.
RATING: ★★ (2/10 stars)