The idea of transforming one’s entire body is very much in the news these days, which makes director Tarsem Singh’s Self/less eerily relevant even if it’s also very derivative. Billionaire industrialist Damian Hale (Ben Kingsley), dying of cancer, is given an opportunity by vaguely sinister scientist Dr. Albright (Matthew Goode) to undergo a process called “shedding”: Damian’s consciousness will be transferred into a younger, healthier body and he’ll have the chance to extend his life by decades: after all, reasons Albright, what further contributions to civilization could people like Steve Jobs make if they had more time?
Damian, estranged from his daughter (Michelle Dockery of Downton Abbey) and with only one close friend in right-hand man Martin (Victor Garber), decides to leave his old life behind and go through the process. His death faked by Albright’s organization, Damian wakes up a short time later in a strapping new body (now played by Ryan Reynolds), goes through a brief recuperation process and begins a new, hedonistic life as “Edward” in New Orleans, where he is befriended by a local fellow named Anton (Derek Luke),
At first all goes well, but Damian is soon haunted by images from his subconscious — particularly of a woman (Natalie Martinez) and little girl — that Albright explains away as side effects from the operation. But Damian probes further and begins to discover the darker aspects of Albright’s organization — and that Albright and his associates will go to any length to preserve their secrecy and keep their business going.
If any of this sounds familiar to cinephiles, it’s because the first 45 minutes or so of Self/less plays a lot like the 1966 John Frankenheimer classic Seconds, in which a depressed, aging John Randolph got to abandon his cog-in-the-machine job and loveless marriage, be transformed via surgery into Rock Hudson and live in Malibu as a painter. Self/less feels like a remake of that existential horror gem for much of its first half, although the eventual reason for the protagonist’s remorse over his choice is different. The Randolph/Hudson character in Seconds realized that he was unhappy with himself no matter what he did; in Self/less, Damian/Edward senses that the visions he is having possess a greater meaning than the slippery Albright suggests.
At that point Self/less largely drops the self-examination and turns toward action, with Damian/Edward pursued by Albright’s minions as he tries to track down the mysterious woman and child haunting his mind. Who and what they are is pretty evident from the get-go, but it still sets up a quandary for Damian. Here’s the thing about Self/less and why I enjoyed it: yes, the movie is derivative and becomes fairly predictable at one point. But within its own world and its own logic, it never really goes wrong. The story proceeds cleanly and with clarity, there are one or two revelations along the way that keep up the interest, and there was only one moment late in the film that played as a character doing something stupid solely to get them into danger.
There’s also a remarkable emotional pull to the endgame, due largely to Reynolds’ sensitive performance and the strength of the rest of the cast. The ultimate stakes and what they mean for the Damian/Edward character(s) merge nicely with Damian’s own arc and the resolution of the story feels satisfying. The movie has just enough of a layer of underlying themes to perhaps provoke conversation after one leaves the theater. In other words, Self/less is what an old friend used to call a “movie movie,” a film that rests somewhere in a solid middle ground where it entertains and provides a little food for thought without either being an eye-popping blockbuster or a top-shelf Oscar-baiting “important” motion picture.
Credit must go to screenwriters David and Alex Pastor (Carriers), who have fashioned a sci-fi story that doesn’t need robots and rockets, and to Tarsem Singh, who applies his eye for composition, color and imagery to a much more realistic story than any of his four previous pictures. Self/less is still beautiful to look at, and Singh also shoots his action sequences well: unlike many modern directors when it comes to action, he never makes you wonder where anyone is supposed to be, what is crashing into what or why the camera is shaking so much (because it isn’t). A bit of restraint works in favor of the director of movies like The Fall and The Cell, who proves here he can tell a much more traditional story and tell it well. There’s care, craftsmanship, thoughtfulness and concern for entertainment value here, even if Self/less has some identity problems of its own.