Directed by: Tarsem Singh
Premise: A wealthy architect (Ben Kingsley) who is dying of cancer undergoes an experimental medical procedure that transmits his consciousness into a younger body (Ryan Reynolds).
What Works: Self/less is a science fiction movie built on an interesting philosophical idea. Even though that idea has been seen before and done much better in movies like Total Recall and Memento it’s just enough to color the story in a compelling way. The most engaging aspect of Self/less is the family dynamic. Ben Kingsley’s character is a wealthy businessman who is estranged from his liberal-minded daughter (Michelle Dockery). He fails to reconcile with her before the procedure but after the transplant he has another opportunity to do so and in a few scenes there are flashes of realization from the point of view of a man living on borrowed time. The conflict of Self/less comes after the procedure as the reincarnated old man finds himself having flashbacks of someone else’s life. It turns out the body he has been transplanted into was not grown in the lab as he was told but was a living person with his own life, including a wife and child. He tracks down his host body’s family and then they all go on the run from the gun wielding agents of the evil company. The relationship between Ryan Reynolds’ dual character and his wife and child, played by Natalie Martinez and Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen, are the best parts of the movie and it’s a shame that the filmmakers didn’t take more advantage of that.
What Doesn’t: Self/less is a movie with an interesting idea: what if a person were able to transplant his or her consciousness into another body? That concept has a lot of potential but the moviemakers don’t use it in an interesting way. The film has a character who is literally of two minds but those dual personalities don’t struggle for domination over the body. In the course of the story the old man is supposed to learn something about himself and the world. He begins the movie as cut throat and selfish but by the end he has supposedly transformed into a more generous character. There is nothing in the film that prompts that transition and the filmmakers never make use of the implications of the old man’s lifetime of experience transplanted into a younger body. There isn’t even an effort to sync the performances of Ben Kingsley and Ryan Reynolds with behavioral ticks or verbal cues and there is very little of the older character reflected in his younger incarnation. Self/less entertains a complex idea but at every turn it is unimaginative and simplistic. It’s revealed that Ryan Reynolds’ character volunteered to give his body to this project in order to pay his daughter’s medical bills. The fact that he agreed to donate his body adds a lot of ethical ambiguity to all this and that ought to cause a recalculation in the moral distinctions of the story but instead the filmmakers fall back on a good versus evil binary that is not very interesting. For some reason this underground scientific business has hitmen and other enforcers and they resort to violence for no reason and show up in places when it’s convenient for the plot. Like In Time and Legion, Self/less is yet another example of a science fiction/fantasy film that utilizes a compelling premise only as an excuse to stage unimaginative shoot outs and car chases. If the gunplay were exciting or creative then the flimsy premise might be forgivable but the action of Self/less is never more than mediocre. The problems of Self/less are really apparent when compared to similar films such as 1990’s Total Recall. That movie had a similar idea but director Paul Verhoeven was able to use the ideas in a meaningful way while having a lot more fun with the action.
Bottom Line: Self/less squanders an interesting idea in a movie that is never more than a bland action film. There is nothing at all memorable about this movie and viewers would do better seeking out John Frankenheimer’s Seconds or Paul Verhoven’s Total Recall.
Episode: #551 (July 19, 2015)