Self/less is an average science-fiction drama that pulls heavily from prior filmic explorations of immortality - and passes familiar plot beats off as fresh ideas.
Successful New York magnate Damian (Ben Kingsley) has lived a life of prosperity, thanks to hard work and cunning business savvy, but wealth and power come at a cost. Even though he is surrounded by devoted employees, the real estate mogul is lonely and sick. Battling terminal cancer (that has metastasized throughout his body), Damian reflects on his life, attempting to reconcile the mistakes he's made - and face his inevitable death.
However, when a mysterious business card appears on his desk, Damian discovers that death might not be as inevitable as he may have believed. Thanks to a revolutionary surgical procedure known as "Shedding," discovered by genius researcher, Albright (Matthew Goode), Damian is given a new chance at life. After his consciousness is transferred into a healthy fresh body (Ryan Reynolds), Damian sets out to experience life anew - until he discovers that Albright's revolutionary procedure comes with unexpected side effects.
Directed by visionary filmmaker Tarsem Singh (The Cell), Self/less is an average science-fiction drama that pulls heavily from prior filmic explorations of immortality - and passes familiar plot beats off as fresh ideas. For viewers who have never experienced a film like Self/less, Singh's latest project will be full of smart twists, turns, and heady-sci-fi concepts; yet, in spite of competent filmmaking and storytelling, the movie will still rehash ideas that have been done numerous times before (and often better). Singh delivers an enjoyable film but for every surprise or thoughtful moment, there's a predictable twist, abrupt tonal shift, or flat action set piece to undermine the experience.
This bland execution extends to the film's cinematography as well - and Self/less is, by far, Singh's least inventive project. Moviegoers have taken issue with the director's work in the past but, even when the plot of Mirror Mirror or The Immortals stumbled, the projects offered, at the very least, captivating and unique cinematography. The same cannot be said for Self/less - which rests on its premise, more than story or visuals, resulting in a streamlined but uninspired execution. A disappointment, given that Singh is usually much more ambitious and imaginative.
Ben Kingsley establishes Damian as a cruel and selfish one percenter - a desperate man that, even in death, clings to money and influence; yet, immediately after shedding, there's little of Kingsley's Damian in Reynolds' performance, making it hard to reconcile any personal growth the character explores in the subsequent two acts. Both actors craft a serviceable side to Damian's story - presenting versions of the Self/less protagonist that service their respective arcs - but don't meld together with any subtlety (or memorable gravitas).
Kingsley's Damian is quickly brushed into the backstory and, even though there are no cues to confirm the same man is now peering out through Reynolds' eyes, post-shed Damian remains a compelling lead. As usual, Reynolds finds a likable balance between humor and emotion (as well as action) - enough to guide audiences through Self/less' world-building and sci-fi ideas. The character is ultimately par-for-the-course in Singh's film - a charming but forgettable hero.
Matthew Goode manages to act through an exposition-heavy role, breathing personality and charm into a part that, with a different actor, could have been weighed down by stiff caricature. Instead, Goode injects enough personality to keep Self/less alive while educating Damian (as well as the audience) on the intricacies of shedding. Self/less also features appearances from several well-known actors in support roles, including Victor Garber (The Flash), Derek Luke (Empire), Natalie Martinez (Under the Dome), and Michelle Dockery (Downton Abbey) - all of which receive limited screen time but lay an intriguing foundation on which to explore Damian's journey.
That all said, eight-year-old Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen is responsible for many of the best scenes in Self/less - with sharp comedic timing and a sincerity that brings out the best in Reynolds' performance. Even though Self/less is full of brainy sci-fi ideas (some which will require audiences to suspend more disbelief than usual), the relationship between Damian and Kinchen's Anna is a highlight of the movie - with intriguing parallels that, once a viewer knows all the twists and turns, offer an added layer of subtext.
Self/less pulls from a high-quality cast, interesting material, and an imaginative filmmaker; yet, the movie fails in utilizing any one piece to memorable effect. At the most basic level of entertainment, Singh's latest is an adequate sci-fi thriller; yet, astute filmgoers will see most revelations coming long before the film unveils them - meaning that, for many ticket buyers, the value of Self/less will be in moment-to-moment drama and action - both of which, like the rest of the film, rarely do anything new or particularly unique.
Unfortunately, Singh's latest film has all the problems of his previous movies (muddled drama in favor of style-over-substance) but without the striking visual flair that differentiated Singh from his contemporaries. Sharp visuals elevated The Immortals and Mirror Mirror - in spite of half-baked narratives. With Self/less, Singh fails to excel in any one aspect, resulting in an underdeveloped story with routine cinematography, disjointed characters - all without providing worthwhile insight into aging or immortality, much less rebirth or death.
Self/less runs 116 minutes and is Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence, some sexuality, and language. Now playing in theaters.
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