Reviewer: Philip Price
Director: Tarsem Singh
Stars: Ben Kingsley, Brendan McCarthy, Derek Luke, Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen,Matthew Goode, Melora Hardin, Michelle Dockery, Natalie Martinez, Ryan Reynolds, Sam Page, Thomas Francis Murphy, Victor Garber
Released: 17th July 2015 (UK)
What do you say when everything you’ve just witnessed is as down the middle as you could imagine? There was an undercurrent of suspicion, hope, and possibility given the sheltered release date that strive to place Self/less as alternative programming. It seemed, if nothing else, like a safe action bet in the vein of Safe House to mainstream movie-goers with added credentials of Ben Kingsley and director Tarsem Singh (The Fall, Immortals) for those more invested in current cinema. Singh is known for insane and typically crazily creative visuals, but all of those touches are for the most part absent here as Ryan Reynolds tries once again to prove that he can be good in a dramatic role. Ultimately, we are taken through a few action beats and little more. When the most unique aspect of a Singh picture is some of its editing choices, one has to wonder what brought him to the project and what made him choose this traditional and standard approach to the material rather than adding his own flourishes. Whatever the reasoning might have been, what the director delivers with the final product is a perfectly fine piece of entertainment that operates in the sci-fi/action genre but does little to expound on it’s rather interesting premise. It eventually devolves into a series of chase scenes. The first hour or so of the film had me going along with it as we are given the outline for the somewhat complicated main idea. What would you do if we were able to manufacture immortality? The question is posed up front and in our main character falling victim to the possibilities of such promises Singh expertly paces (again, thanks to some nice editing choices) the first half of the film to methodically execute the questions that would naturally arise around such power. Singh then sets up the possible avenues for where the remainder of the film might go. It is the choice of writers David and Alex Pastor to go the route of the bad guys hunting down their rogue experiment that damns the film from becoming more than just that middle of the road movie. Self/less certainly had potential but out of nothing more than laziness and wanting to avoid more complicated, thought-provoking territory that potential was squandered on a film that will be easily forgotten.
Beginning in the pent house suite of a high rise building in New York City that looks as if it has been decorated by King Tut, we are introduced to industrialist Damian Hale (Kingsley). Hale is extremely wealthy and renowned for being the man who built NYC into what it is today but is secretly dying from cancer. In one of the early scenes that displays Damian’s knack for doing business and keeping his company more than afloat we are also introduced to his associate Martin (Victor Garber). Martin is something of a confidant and friend to Damian as being the wealthiest man in the city. This hasn’t exactly made him the most popular. Damian’s daughter, Claire (Michelle Dockery) runs a non-profit and doesn’t speak to him and also doesn’t care to patch things up through Damian’s pocketbook. For a man such as Damian, a man who feels superior to all those around him, it is hard to admit to being like everyone else, to dying like we all do. Thus, Damian is suspiciously contacted by an organization led by Dr. Albright (Matthew Goode) that specializes in transferring the consciousness of some of the greatest minds of their day into the lab-grown bodies of younger people so that they might continue to innovate. Once Damian agrees to the operation and stages his death appropriately, his consciousness is transferred to the body of a young man that just so happens to look like Mr. Reynolds. At first, all seems to be going well for the newly minted “Edward” granted he takes the little red pill Dr. Albright has prescribed once a day. Naturally, all is not as it appears though for as soon as Damian misses one dose of his medicine he begins to uncover the mystery of the body’s true origin and the bigger organization that will kill to protect it’s secrets.
Once Damian becomes thirty-five year old Edward and has completed the necessary rehabilitation the film finds something of a stride in its New Orleans setting. Reveling in his youthfulness Damian/Edward takes to the local basketball courts where he has an immediate connection with Anton (Derek Luke). Anton introduces him to the nightlife around the city and helps the revitalized Damian enjoy a period of complete self-indulgence. The utilization of the New Orleans music scene paired with the intercut editing of actions plastered over dialogue help the montages stick out and the film feel vibrant, at least for the moment. Being in this constant state of pleasure-seeking though, Damian begins to feel it is nothing more than routine. As Albright can see the pebbles of resistance during their weekly meetings he decides to give Damian a change of scenery as well as up his dosage. Through a series of events Damian comes to realize the body he’s now occupying is not that of a synthetic one but an actual human body with a past life. Damian discovers the body actually belonged to a man named Mark who was once an Army veteran from Missouri. Mark’s since been presumed dead by his wife, Madeline (Natalie Martinez), and their young daughter, Anna (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen). Once the now Damian/Mark learns these truths and decides to investigate, the movie takes a slight left turn into predictability. Rather than further exploring the reasoning behind Mark’s decision to submit himself to Dr. Albright or even how Albright goes about choosing these candidates the movie gives us Reynolds, Martinez and their girl on the run. Nevermind the throughline concerning legacy and what one creates in their lifetime serving as that legacy thus making you feel immortal, but Singh doesn’t even take advantage of the transferring of the minds to give us an interesting visual representation. Instead, we’re given what we expect, what they feel we can handle and nothing else.
The most interesting thing left to discuss is of course the performance of Reynolds. His performance is key to buying the idea that Kingsley’s mind has actually transferred into his body, but even more is the need to convey the strain of two psyches fighting for control of one mind. It’s clear Reynolds is all in for capturing this internal conflict and does well to keep the reality of the situation present. Still, there is something about the performance that exhibits the actor doesn’t seem to fully grasp the implication of such a possibility, but hell-I’m not sure I do either. On the other side of things, Goode carries such an old fashioned swagger to his persona that he naturally exudes the more mature manner that Reynolds has to actively reach for when subtly mimicking Kingsley’s body language and vocal patterns. Goode also integrates a level of evil genius into his performance despite the character clearly thinking of himself as more of a savior. Kingsley, though only present for the first fifteen minutes or so, may actually give the worst performance in the film based solely on his attempt to do something of a (I guess) New York accent that sounds strained and awkward. Kingsley’s scene with Garber is fun to watch though, and Garber serves as a more vital character than expected. With the bigger ideas of the script being sacrificed around him so as to put on something of a twist in the third act though, it’s all a little disappointing. Martinez, who has been strong in the likes of End of Watch and Broken City, does what she can with what she’s given here, but is mainly resigned to the crying and confused wife. The positive things I can say about Self/lessonce it does hit its formulaic second half is that at least it never wastes time on lagging intervals, but rather cuts right to the chase that becomes its essence. The film always feels as if it’s moving forward though, which is good considering if we stayed on one scene too long it would become all the more obvious how quickly the movie is to abandon the overriding dilemma our protagonists journey hinges on.