How long have we been hunting for the Holy Grail? The Fountain of Youth? That eternal source of immortality, whatever form it may come in? Self/less brings technology and modern medicine into the equation, imagining an experimental breakthrough known as “shedding” in which a person’s mind is transferred into a new, younger body.
What would you do if suddenly given your youth back? Why, shoot bad guys and be Ryan Reynolds, of course. Self/less starts out promising and even has the style of something great, but sheds its own sci-fi shell for one of a boilerplate action movie. Sadly, none of the film’s more compelling ideas carry through in the process.
Ben Kingsley plays Damian Hale, an enormously wealthy business magnate quickly dying of cancer, but he’s presented with an option: Via the help of Dr. Albright (Matthew Goode), he can import his brain into the empty vessel that is Ryan Reynolds. In a terrific sequence, Self/less takes our POV through the MRI machine from hell, only for Reynolds to wake up outside his former self.
With Damian now considered publicly dead and having all the free time in the world, he starts his life in New Orleans as Eddie, sleeping with a new woman every night and using his enormous wealth for the most opulent life after death. You might stop to ask how timely it is to make a movie about a guy who can use his vast fortune to gain exclusive immortality and spend life partying it up, but the movie doesn’t. Nor does it fully grapple with Damian’s psychological questions, i.e. what it actually feels like to be reborn, how he might use his new life to make a greater impact or ponder the world’s reaction to his own death.
Instead, Damian/Eddie starts to experience hallucinations as a result of not taking Albright’s dosage of red pills and starts working to discover the source of these images in his new mind. Where this is going is almost too obvious, but Self/less arrives there far too quickly. Albright’s hidden secret is too simple for the conspiratorial tone the film sets, and it’s unclear before long what answers Damian is actually searching for or what moral choices, if any, he’s really grappling with.
Director Tarsem Singh may simply be a bad choice for this material. Singh has had a peculiar arc, starting with art house indies The Cell and The Fall before moving to the far less cerebral CGI spectacles Mirror Mirror and Immortals. Despite the sci-fi premise, Self/less is far more grounded in reality than any of his previous work, and it’s his least visually interesting film to date.
Singh still has a sharp eye, and the editing has a rapid, even musical quality that moves with creativity even during Reynolds’ standard living-it-up montage. But Singh’s idea of intrigue takes the form of rote action sequences once the sci-fi is out of the way. Self/less is an empty shell of a movie just waiting for a smarter one to be transplanted into it.