We all have a fear of dying in way or another. One thing we don’t have is the ability to stave of the inevitable. For the super-rich, however, they can at least buy the time of the world’s best medical professionals, if only to postpone fate. But in the world of Self/Less, the new film by Tarsem Singh, the super-rich can purchase immortality by transferring their consciousness into the body of another in a process called “shedding.” If only what little brains there are in Self/Less could transport out this tired, withered film.
Ben Kingsley plays Damien, an extremely wealthy entrepreneur in New York City. Despite the vast wealth he’s amassed, Damien is estranged from his daughter Claire (Michelle Dockery) and dying, cancer slowly eating him away. Damien is made aware of a company that offers to transfer his consciousness into a body grown at their labs. After meeting with the head of the company Dr. Albright (Matthew Goode) and taking a turn for the worse, Damien agrees to pay the vast sum of money – $250 million! – and wakes up in his younger body, this one played by Ryan Reynolds. Though he’s started a fun new life in New Orleans, Damien starts suffering flashbacks and hallucinations. Albright prescribes him special pills that he must take once a day or his consciousness will eventually fade into oblivion. But Damien soon finds inconsistencies in the story and (SPOILER ALERT, but not really because you’ll see it coming from a mile away) discovers that his body wasn’t grown in a lab, but a husband who sacrificed himself to save his sick child. This takes Damien to the home of Madeline (Natalie Martinez) and Anna (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen), the wife and child of his rent-a-body. His presence puts them in danger. Now he must commit a truly Self/Less act (get it?) and try to do the right thing.
One thing that sticks out about Self/Less is the conventional style by the usually heavily-stylized Tarsem Singh. Following the script by David and Àlex Pastor, once the minds are swapped the film devolves into a generic action film. And while it is easy to detect a serious debt of gratitude, right down to the slash within the title, to Face/Off, the film is neither good as sci-fi or action. Worst of all, the film squanders the premise by making the two incarnations of Damien completely different from one another. In his limited scenes, Kingsley plays Damien with a heavy New York accent. It’s really cartoonish and over the top, like you’d expect to find among drunken British actors taking their turns at impersonating Al Pacino. Once Damien wakes up in the body of Ryan Reynolds, the character just takes on the persona of Ryan Reynolds. Suddenly, the character has very good comedic timing. The film’s entire conceit doesn’t work because it never feels as if Kingsley and Reynolds are ever playing the same character.
Oddly, Self/Less takes its main character entirely off the hook for no real reason at all. It’s amazing how easily it’s glossed over that this guy paid this evil corporation a quarter-billion dollars for all of the film’s events to happen. All of the film’s actions are directly his fault, yet in the end he just has to shoot some bad guys to earn absolution. He gets everything he wants along the path to forgiveness. That’s simply not compelling.
There’s a more interesting film in the concept of Self/Less than the one presented on screen. Where the fear of mortality is extremely relatable, Self/Less opts for a sci-fi fable about the super-rich finding redemption after the fact. “I never do anything without insurance,” Damien says at one point. You know, we all make sure we’re well-insured in all that we do – relatable! At nearly two hours, Self/Less is overlong and undercooked. This is a clumsily assembled movie that gives away at least 3 reveals so early that not only do they not work, they are actively cringe-inducing. For all the supposed minds competing here, the dumbest one always wins in Self/Less. It’s just not a film with a memorable consciousness.