Self/less begins with a promising (albeit well-worn) science fiction premise, degrades it by turning it into a generic thriller, and finishes it off with a rushed, disjointed ending. The film, from director Tarsem Singh (whose most recent credit was the Snow White-inspired Mirror Mirror), is instructive in illustrating the cavalier and unsatisfying way Hollywood often takes intriguing ideas and debases them by forcing them into familiar narrative structures. There's enough material in Self/less to fuel a mini-series. Instead of letting the story breathe, the film rushes along at breakneck speed, using contrivances and "shortcuts" in failed attempts at character development.
The film opens with Ben Kingsley (in full Ming the Merciless mode) playing a wealthy New York City powerbroker who is afflicted with an aggressive form of cancer. Eager to avoid the embrace of the Grim Reaper, he accepts the offer of geneticist Professor Albright (Matthew Goode), who claims he can transplant the content of Damian's mind into a younger, healthy body (Ryan Reynolds). Once the transition is complete, Damian discovers all is not smooth sailing. Not only is the new body trying to reject the implanted thoughts and memories but the identity of its previous inhabitant is in danger of re-emerging. Indeed, prodded by visions, Damian searches out his former "wife" (Natalie Martinez) and "daughter", putting their lives in danger when Albright realizes Damian might be less loyal than he expected.
The central moral dilemma is absorbing. What would a person do to achieve immortality, or at least to extend his life by another 50 years? Would he collaborate in the annihilation of another's identity? Unfortunately, Self/less becomes so focused on the chase scenes and fights that it loses sight of any larger picture. In the end, the screenplay cops out with an unearned resolution that is neither sensible nor consistent. This "exist strategy" betrays the few fascinating elements not previously ground underfoot by a ponderous, improbable story.
Perhaps the biggest inconsistency in Self/less relates to the character of Damian. The conceit is that, although he changes bodies, he's the same person regardless of whether he's being played by Ben Kingsley or Ryan Reynolds. But the filmmakers are unable to convince us that Kingsley's Damian is Reynolds' Damian. It's not just that they don't look alike, but they don't act the same way. The cold ruthlessness that defines old Damian is lost in the transition and we're presented with a completely different person.
The movie attempts to humanize Damian by introducing the family of the former occupant of his body. This creates all sorts of complications, none of which are dramatized effectively. The relationships that develop during a short road trip are cemented with undue haste, capped off by an egregiously manipulative scene of Damian giving swimming lessons to his "daughter." Lacking screen time and an insightful screenplay, Singh resorts to tactics like this.
There's something disquieting about how Self/less handles violence in the presence of a child. Damian Mark II retains the muscle memory and instincts for hand-to-hand combat possessed by his body's previous inhabitant. He uses these to kill (sometimes brutally) the men pursuing him. This is, of course, standard operating procedure for a thriller, except that Damian does a lot of his bloodiest work while his young "daughter" is watching. (To be fair, Mom occasionally tries to shield her.) Way to traumatize the kid for the rest of her life, although she doesn't seem the least bit bothered by it. It's clear that the screenwriters don't think of the child as a real person; she's a plot element designed to soften Damian and make him more heroic.
The ending is a cheat more dispiriting than anything to precede it. (And's no dearth of examples - like the flashback/visions that lead Damian first to his "family" then provide him with enough information to locate Albright's super-secret lair.) Unwilling to confront the twin issues of immorality and identity destruction in their fullest terms, the film simply waves a magic wand. Poof! No consequences or ramifications. Self/less is too badly made to entertain audiences in search of escapist entertainment and too insulting for viewers hoping for more.
© 2015 James Berardinelli