Tarsem Singh’s “Self/Less” is a high concept sci fi movie that doesn’t realize its full potential. What if, when close to death, one could transfer one’s consciousness into a younger body and continue living? Our greatest minds could continue to do great work, if only they weren’t hindered by their aging bodies. It’s a fascinating idea handled with shaky execution. Singh opts for a more traditional “on the run” action movie, with a confused protagonist hunting for the truth and a seemingly endless barrage of movie henchmen.
Ben Kingsley—doing what sounds like a gravelly Brooklyn accent; whatever it is it sounds incredibly phony—stars as Damian, a billionaire architect on his deathbed. He hears about an organization that performs a new medical procedure called Shedding. After coughing up blood one too many times and having a few meetings with the organization’s leader Albright (Matthew Goode) Damian decides to go for it. He wakes up in a new body (Ryan Reynolds) and for a while it’s all fun and games. In a slickly directed and edited montage we see Damian take his new body out for a test run, making love to a plethora of girls and partying in various New Orleans clubs. However, he begins to see flashes of old memories that aren’t his, which eventually leads him to discover the ugly truth of his new body’s origin.
These opening forty five minutes or so are strong and Damian’s a-ha moment underlines the fundamental dilemma with a procedure like Shedding: the young bodies have to come from somewhere. Shedding is elitist, not just because wealthy people are the only ones who can afford it but also because it asserts that one person’s life is more important than someone else’s. At one point Albright says that all medical advancement requires some sacrifice; while there is a kernel of truth in his sentiment, nobody gets to decide that one person’s life is more important than another, especially when it results in the “inferior” person’s death.
Plus, the fact that Albright profits from the procedures makes things even murkier. Not only does he believe certain people should keep on living at the expense of others but he’s making a lot of money in the process. Doesn’t sound fair to me. Albright is the most compelling character in the entire movie and Goode plays him with his usual relaxed charm and wit, along with menace.
At about the halfway point Damian, accompanied by Madeline (Natalie Martinez) and Anna (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen) the wife and daughter of Mark--the body Damian now inhabits—go on the run from Albright and “Self/Less” turns into an extended chase scene. Damian has a Jason Bourne moment when he realizes his young body is capable of hand-to-hand combat and Albright’s organization is the kind of organization that only exists in movies. They’re extremely secretive, yet they have a full army of professional foot soldiers and “clean up” crews to make sure their patients don’t get out of line. As the movie goes on, the action aspect becomes more prominent and the action set pieces themselves get increasingly ridiculous--flame throwers, car crashes, gun fights, more flame throwers!-- creating tonal confusion. All of which somewhat undermines the high concept sci fi material introduced at the beginning. “Self/Less” has an intriguing sci fi premise but it’s wrapped in a silly, run of the mill action/thriller.
Reynolds is an odd casting choice. While he excels at the more awkward comedic moments near the beginning—Damian getting used to his new body—he simply doesn’t have an action star presence. I don't understand why he keeps getting casted in these types of movies. He’s not very smooth or intimidating and he can’t aptly convey Kingsley’s seasoned gravitas.
There are other issues; Damian has an estranged daughter, an underdeveloped relationship that could have been jettisoned entirely. And when you throw an innocent mom and daughter into a PG-13 action movie you know nothing bad will happen to them, which eliminates some tension. While the quieter tender moments between the three feel authentic, during the action sequences, Madeline and Anna just get in the way.
On the whole, “Self/Less” is a mild disappointment. Singh has a great concept on his hands but the screenplay (by David and Alex Pastor) takes the underwhelming, popcorn action movie path. It’s not a bad movie but there’s no reason to see it right away.