Self/less is a sci-fi thriller that revisits several familiar cinematic tropes, from the quest for immortality to Faustian deals, while posing philosophical questions about money, ethics and medicine. The mishmash unfortunately falls flat, hampered by a weak script and some unusually wooden onscreen moments from usually excellent actors.
Written by brothers Alex and David Pastor, and directed by Tarsem Singh (The Cell, Immortals), Self/less opens with the quandary of billionaire industrialist Damian Hale (Ben Kingsley): “The man who built New York”—according to a Time headline—is dying of cancer. Not yet ready to give up his cutthroat businessman lifestyle, Damian is offered the chance to undergo a secretive medical procedure called “shedding” that transfers his consciousness into another younger, synthetic body (Ryan Reynolds).
Dr. Albright (Matthew Goode) warns that the process is costly, both financially and physically, but Damian has nothing to lose. He is, after all, another lonely rich man estranged from his activist daughter, Claire (Michelle Dockery), and has only one friend/business partner in Martin O’Neil (Victor Garber). Damian agrees to be reincarnated as Reynolds and begins a new life in New Orleans as “Edward.” He tests out his new body with lots of excess: drinking, exercise, sex, and an obscene amount of peanut butter (Damian was allergic to peanuts, Edward is not). Despite the success of the transfer, Edward suffers from hallucinations that can only be controlled by medicine provided by Albright. When he misses a dose, his mind is overcome with images and moments of a single mother and her daughter; the scenes from another life are almost too much to bear.
At this point in the film, Self/less shifts from science fiction to a mystery. It eventually ends as a shoot-’em-up action movie, with Edward trying to redeem his old and new lives. Reynolds tackles the three genres competently, especially the fight and action sequences, but we don’t see the ruthlessness or the aloofness in Kingsley’s Damian 1.0. The characters look and act too differently to believe they’re essentially the same person. This distinction is especially evident in the latter half of the film as Edward risks his own new life for an unknown man’s family when Damian barely spoke to his own daughter.
Kingsley’s aloofness, however, could also be mistaken for woodenness. In several instances, Singh can’t quite coax natural performances from his talented cast. During one early scene, Martin and Damian are joined at a power lunch by an up-and-coming developer (Sam Page) only to cut him down to pieces before appetizers arrive. The stilted dialogue—which includes something along the lines of “You’ll never work in this town again,” and ends with Page’s character calling Damian a “son of a bitch” before storming out of the restaurant—doesn’t help matters either.
The film is at its most successful when it presents the big-picture questions. What more could Albert Einstein or Steve Jobs have done if they were given extra time? What moral dilemma would arise if a similar procedure were available only to the wealthy? The filmmakers missed an opportunity to fully explore these questions through Damian’s “shedding.” And in the character of Dr. Albright, they fail to creatively navigate the fine line of savior vs. psychopath.
Any science fiction film asks for a suspension of disbelief to buy into the story, but good science fiction makes the fantastic seem probable or plausible. Self/less does not. There are several instances that give the audience pause, including Albright telling Damian that the new bodies—complete with the stubble on Edward’s face—are created in labs, and the brilliant Damian believes him. But, really, the most dubious moment isn’t even science fiction; it includes a flamethrower that just happens to be in the medical room in which Edward’s trapped. Talk about right place, right time.
While it aspires to be something more on paper, on screen Self/less starts to ask interesting questions, but instead of delving into answers relies on a predictable action-adventure plot.
Director: Tarsem Singh
Writers: Alex Pastor, David Pastor
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Natalie Martinez, Matthew Goode, Victor Garber, Derek Luke, Michelle Dockery and Ben Kingsley
Release Date: July 10, 2015
Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based freelance pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter.