Silver Screen: Self/less **
Ben Kingsley and Ryan Reynolds play the same character in the sci-fi thriller Self/less, but apparently nobody bothered to tell them that.
Self/less sports the kind of loopy premise you buy into when the execution is sharp, but which you cannot get past when it’s bungled. Damian (Kingsley) is a wealthy architect dying of a terminal illness. The mysterious Doctor Albright (Matthew Goode) presents him with a bizarre proposition: For $250 million, Damian can participate in a top-secret trial run in which his mind is implanted into a fresh young body grown in a lab.
Damian accepts, and after his managed demise he wakes up in his shiny new body (now played by the much shinier, newer Ryan Reynolds). He enjoys the spoils of youth, playing basketball and carousing nightclubs with his new pal Anton (Derek Luke). But he begins to suspect that the side effects of the radical procedure— strange but eerily consistent hallucinations of another life— aren’t hallucinations at all, but rather another man’s memories.
It’s a neat idea, kind of Philip K. Dick Lite, but one the movie never fully commits to. The filmmakers show admirable respect for the audience in their avoidance of unnecessary pseudoscientific explanations for the fantastical technology at the movie’s core. Doctor Albright, played perfectly dry and smarmy by Goode, dismisses all technical questions with the vague explanation that his revolutionary machine is “like a big magnet”... or something. And I was perfectly willing to suspend disbelief to accept the premise.
But none of the actors, screenwriters, or director Tarsem Singh make much of an effort to render both incarnations of Damian as essentially the same character. Self/less depends on the laziest shorthand to convey the continuity of character between one body and another. In an early scene, Kingsley casually tosses his house keys behind his back and onto a chair in his living room, a gesture Reynolds repeats exactly once, as if to say, “See, we’ve totally validated the concept!” Another character is identified by a similar physical tic, while a third character’s body-hopping is signified by a piece of jewelry.
It’s here where Singh and screenwriters David and Alex Pastor (cocreators of the underrated horror flick Carriers) utterly fail not just to be consistent in the service of narrative cohesiveness, but to explore the fun, weird possibilities of their own premise. There’s both physical and psychological terror inherent in the notion of being shoved into a new physical form and of having foreign memories intruding into your brain. But Singh and his crew cop out here and only use this development as justification to run through a series of standard-issue thriller sequences, shootouts, and car chases far too mundane for a movie predicated on a headier concept.
It’s strange that Self/less is ultimately undone by an adherence to convention and an unadventurous, middle-of-the-road approach given that Singh’s most notable previous achievement— aside perhaps from the lucrative Julia Roberts-starring fairytale riff Mirror, Mirror— was the lurid, trippy Cell. That mostly forgotten 2000 horror flick sent a social worker (played by Jennifer Lopez) traipsing through the subconscious of a serial killer (Vincent D’Onofrio). Cell wasn’t a great movie, but it was admirably weird, notable for its audacious imagery, foreboding atmosphere, and an impressionistic style, similar to Bryan Fuller’s vivid, phantasmagoric Hannibal (quietly one of the best shows on TV right now).
Self/less is handsome enough and competently constructed, with all the subplots neatly tied together. Alias’s Victor Garber and Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dockery are trotted out, then brought back again later like sentient versions of Chekhov’s gun. The appealing Natalie Martinez is given absolutely no agency in what essentially amounts to a damsel-in-distress role (as in End of Watch, she mostly is just asked to cry and grudgingly go along with the male lead). The movie is professional stuff, but uninspired, and especially frustrating in that Reynolds and Kingsley never seem to have even met over coffee to decide how Damian should behave. Like 2011’s Limitless, it has one foot in sci-fi but another in straight-to-DVD thriller, uncertain about which direction to move.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.