A film review by Craig J. Koban November 22, 2015


2015, PG-13, 116 mins.


Ben Kingsley as Damian  /  Ryan Reynolds as Edward  /  Natalie Martinez as Madeline  /  Matthew Goode as Albright  /  Michelle Dockery as Claire  /  Melora Hardin as Judy  /  Victor Garber as Martin  /  Derek Luke as Anton

Directed by Tarsem Singh  /  Written by Àlex Pastor and David Pastor

The new sci-fi thriller SELF/LESS is a multiple disappointment offender.  

Firstly, it’s one of those dreadfully annoying PWP films, or ones that contain a premise without a payoff.  The movie has all of the necessary core elements to make for a thematically compelling sci-fi allegory, but instead it squanders such thoughtful discourse on mindless, paint-by-numbers action sequences.  Secondly, SELF/LESS was directed by Tarsem Singh, The Indian-American filmmaker that previously made two of the most visually astounding films that I have ever seen in THE CELL and THE FALL.  Considering that such a visionary director is at the helm here, I was frankly not expecting SELF/LESS to be a lackluster affair to sit through, and one lacking in aesthetic imagination and narrative ambition.  For the most part, this film just sort of sits listlessly on the screen. 

SELF/LESS is also on a long, long list of forgettable body switch films (hell, its lead star in Ryan Reynolds previously starred in a very different one in the abysmal THE CHANGE UP).  To be fair, Singh’s film at least asks some sobering questions regarding its very subject matter (which involves transporting a conscious mind from a dying body into a healthy young body without a conscious mind): What does it truly mean to be human and alive?  How is the soul defined?  How is one’s life defined and determined?  Is the soul a transferable entity?  Is the physical body just an inconsequential carrier vehicle for the soul?  SELF/LESS poses so many tantalizing queries at viewers that it’s ultimately unsatisfying to see the film never once truly or substantially answering them.  There’s something to be said about a film that respects the audiences enough to let them make up their own minds as to what a film is trying to say, but SELF/LESS rarely feels mentally equal to the task of even dealing with such weighty intellectual pursuits.  



The opening sections of the film are indeed intriguing.  We meet a filthy rich businessman Damian Hale (a very solid Ben Kingsley sporting a not-so-solid New York accent) that seemingly has enough wealth and power to buy his way out of anything.  Regrettably, his financial wealth is unable to purchase himself a cure for terminal cancer, which he was just diagnosed with.  He still makes appearances and conducts business where and when needed and tries to reconnect with his estranged daughter (Michelle Dockery), but in private he’s a sick and dying man.  With only a few months left to live, Damian is trying to do whatever he can to ensure his survival, but the outlook is decidedly and inevitably grim.  If only he could find a manner to cheat death. 

But, of course he does!  

Entering into the picture is Phoenix Biogenics, a secret firm that specializes saving the lives of dying people…sort of.  What they do is take the terminal person’s mind and soul (out of their sick and decayed body) and transport it into a healthy, young and fresh body that’s grown in a process called “shedding.”  The bill is a cool quarter of a billion dollars, but Damian is good for the money.  Project leader Professor Albright (Matthew Goode) gives Damian the opportunity to essentially become a new man with all of his cognitive wits intact.  Damian initially holds off, but when his health takes a violent setback for the worse he decides to take the professor up on his offer.  After a seemingly flawless procedure, Damian’s mind has indeed been placed into his new younger body (Ryan Reynolds), but he has a series of unforeseen setbacks in his road to recovery.  Outside of the normal rigors of trying to acclimatize himself to his new body, Damian begins to have hallucinatory visions of a life that was clearly not his…leading him to suspect that his new body was not actually manufactured at all.  While trying to stay as far away from Phoenix Biogenics as he can (and their hired goons), Damian makes a startling discovery that drastically makes him rethink Albright’s ethics. 

As stated, SELF/LESS is a premise-heavy film that, at the very least, has some interesting things to say, but no real idea of how to say them.   The lack of a strong conceptual handling of the themes by the makers here is made up for by the fairly decent performances that permeate the film.  Kingsley has a few decent pre-transformation scenes (granted, he’s barely in the film) and Reynolds gives a fairly urgent and credible performance as Damian in his new body; you can feel his confusion and anxiety in the film, even though there's very little effort on Reynolds’ part to make us believe that Kingsley is trapped in his body.  All in all, it’s Reynolds playing…Reynolds.  Matthew Goode is arguably better than most actors at playing soft and well-spoken intellectuals that harbor dark and malicious ulterior motives, and here he’s definitely effective playing up the internalized sinister inclinations of his outwardly congenial doctor.  

My main misgivings, though, regarding the film are not the people in front of the camera, but rather behind it.  Singh has – when not taking qualitative detours in movies like MIRROR, MIRROR – has always been a limitlessly confident high concept director that presents sights on screen of endless visual awe and wonder (THE FALL might be one of the most meticulously and beautifully designed and constructed films of recent memory), but here all of his creative energy has been apparently subverted by an overall screenplay that pigeonholes the filmmaker into helming scenes with perfunctory action beats.  Even when Singh opens the film with some lush an opulent camera pans through Damian’s gold encrusted penthouse apartment, there’s very little, if anything, in the film later that’s as visually gripping.  What’s the point of hiring someone with the proven pedigree of Singh if you’re not going to allow him to freely run rampant with his imagination?  

Granted, there are not too many directors that could save SELF/LESS from its own storytelling contrivances.  Beyond not exploring its wonderfully established premise, screenwriters Alex and David Pastor feel like they’re in an absolute rush to unleash would-be shocking plot twists in the film.  SELF/LESS is a sci-fi film that doesn’t so much let its ideas and concepts slowly germinate towards a climatic payoff as much as it blows its wad really early and lets us know all of its secrets right from the get-go.  This, of course, leaves the film building towards a third act that feels neither consequential nor dramatically satisfying (that, and the film sort of cheats in the end, without giving anything directly away).  You also know that you’re in trouble when you’re ideas-heavy sci-fi film gets bogged down in way, way too many action sequences involving fisticuffs, gun shout-outs, car chases, and other monotonous diversions that feel like they should be in a whole other movie altogether. 

I loved the core concepts that SELF/LESS introduced, but the overall film is poorly assembled in the manner with which it takes short cuts with its themes and degenerates away from a potentially gripping sci-fi parable and into fairly generic and mindless action movie.  The sheer complexity of what this film is dealing with almost can’t be contained within a single two-hour narrative.  There are moments when SELF/LESS feels like it’s gong to truly explore it’s ideas and perhaps redeem itself, only to then give up and proceed to methodically dumb itself down to lowest common denominator levels.  

Instead of being a brainy sci-fi thriller...SELF/LESS mostly just brain/less. 

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