God created man. Man created immortality.
Self/less comes as an odd undertaking for Indian director Tarsem Singh, best known for his flamboyant style and lavish visual cinematic canvases such as The Fall (2006), Immortals (2011) and Mirror Mirror (2012). In his latest endeavor, Self/less, Singh shies away from his signature strengths, and with lurid images and dreamlike imagination missing from the feat, Singh’s storytelling knack is truly tested, which audiences have come to realize — through past experiences — is not his forte. This most recent psychological science-fiction thriller explores the consequences of taking one person’s life, so that another can live forever, with middling results, as filmmakers skirt around the profound questions we all, at some point in our lives, think about and feel — If only I had more time to live? — turning Self/less into a forgetful by the numbers actioner, sacrificing intelligent ideas for contrived shoot-the-bad-guys action beats.
Self/less tells the story of billionaire industrialist Damian Hale (Ben Kingsley), a wealthy and successful business tycoon, excelling at life from his NYC base of operations, identified by his colleagues as ‘The Man Who Built New York.’ Estranged from his activist daughter Claire (Michelle Dockery), Damian’s only real connection with the world is his long-time friend and associate Martin O’Neil (Victor Garber). However, after a dire cancer diagnosis, Damian is determined to access a radical medical procedure known as ‘shedding,’ a process that will essentially ‘turn back the clock’ on his ‘abbreviated’ life, giving Damian more time to live, prolong his days on Earth. Making contact with professor Albright (Matthew Goode), the brilliant brains of a backdoor organization that caters to the elite and wealthy, the procedure is offered up to Damian, who immediately seizes the opportunity, and thus his ‘passing’ is promptly staged. With the world now mourning the loss of Damian Hale, the ‘shedding’ process begins, as Damian’s consciousness is secretly and successfully transferred into the body of a healthy man (Ryan Reynolds), decades younger.
After adapting to his new physical form, Damian is sent to New Orleans for a fresh start, now assigned with the name ‘Edward,’ and a new identity, complete with a fabricated ‘past life,’ which Damian must impeccably memorize. Preserving his newfound health, Damian is quickly befriended by a local man named Anton (Derek Luke), who encourages ‘Edward’ to indulge in a typical youthful lifestyle — sex and partying — in turn, aiding Damian in becoming more comfortable in his new skin. Even though Damian’s procedure seemed to be a thriving success, he finds his consciousness constantly plagued by disturbing visions, explained by Albright as ‘side effects’ to his immortality. Drawn to the images flooding through his subconsciousness, Damian tracks down the woman from his ‘delusions,’ who happens to be a single mother, Madeline (Natalie Martinez), and starts to unravel the mystery of ‘Edward’s’ true origin — and those who will kill to protect the secret — as Damian’s new body may not have been ‘grown in a lab,’ as Albright had previously claimed. Now, summoning two lifetimes’ worth of strength and resourcefulness, Damian must fight for his survival, and for the lives of those that he has impacted.
Self/less, as a film, is a somewhat decent piece of entertainment but comes across a missed opportunity, as the flick does very little to expand on its rather interesting premise, which could have easily differentiated the project from the countless other science-fiction action movies operating within the genre. The preliminary portion of the film works well, presenting the complicated main idea of, ‘what would humanity do if we were somehow able to manufacture immortality?’ With this controversial hypothesis posed up front, the chief character, Damian, falls victim to the possibilities of such divine promise. Methodically executing the ethical questions that would naturally arise around such power, then setting up the possible avenues for where the remainder of the film might go, Singh’s expert pacing and sharp editing make for an engaging introduction. Sadly, the rest of the film doesn’t take the road less traveled, as co-writers/brothers David and Àlex Pastor’s, Carriers (2009), lazy screenplay is far too derivative, playing it safe by avoiding more complicated, provocative territory — such as notions of class exploitation and/or social commentary — hence squandering the flick’s challenging design by turning to gun fights and numbing action trajectory rather than delving into its topical groundwork. And while the action scenes — most being practical in-camera set-ups — are fairly engaging and moody, particularly a farmhouse-and-kitchen fight sequence, and a car chase involving two automobiles conjoined in a clever and unforeseen way, events are far too convenient and play out way too quickly.
Leads Ryan Reynolds, Buried (2010), and Ben Kingsley, Schindler’s List (1993), turn over relatively decent performances — both portraying the egotistical entrepreneur Damian Hale — however, it never feels as though they’re playing the same character; Reynold’s charm and magnetism doesn’t harmonize well with Kingsley’s narcissism, selfishness and imposing resolve, with both actors feeling as though they’re two considerably different people. On the other hand, the camaraderie between Kingsley’s Damian and his right-hand man, lifelong friend Martin, played by Victor Garber, Argo (2012), is far more convincing as both actors share a real-life off-the-screen friendship, consequently infusing their short scenes together with a genuine sense of believability. As far as the remaining cast members go, Natalie Martinez, End of Watch (2012), gives a credible rendering of widowed single mother Madeline — it’s easy to see how ‘Edward’ can empathize with, and feel compassion towards her — whereas the polished and poised Matthew Goode, The Imitation Game (2014), seems to be a prefect fit for the role of professor Albright, the mastermind behind the precarious process of ‘shedding.’
Though Tarsem Singh did claim to be, ‘looking to train his eye on something that was less fantastical,’ Self/less restricts the visionary director to such a limited palate, rendering this sci-fi thriller to disappointingly generic levels both stylistically and narratively. While the film as a whole is efficient — it does feature several mildly surprising twists, which some may or may not see coming — and each scene does push the story forward, one can’t help but consider Self/less as a bit of a letdown, as it ignores its intriguing philosophical direction and instead, turns to cliché, making for a competent but fairly underwhelming mind-bender. Self/less is a movie about second chances, and not just for Damian; most of the characters face, or are faced with moral questions and choices. So I guess all involved deserve a second chance too, as this restraint effort feels like a diluted replica of better science-fiction films that came before it, with Self/less failing to deliver on its initial high-concept idea.
2.5 / 5 – Alright
Reviewed by S-Littner
Self/less is released through Roadshow Entertainment Australia