'Self/less' wastes an intriguing idea on a by-the-numbers thriller
Self/less Focus Features
Director: Tarsem Singh
Screenplay: David Pastor and Àlex Pastor
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Matthew Goode, Natalie Martinez, Derek Luke, Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen, Victor Garber and Ben Kingsley
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 57 minutes
July 10, 2015
(out of four)
There's not a whole lot of concept to the concept of Self/less, is there? Here is a movie about a dying billionaire whose wealth buys him possession (and occupancy) of another man's younger, healthier body, and yet all it really amounts to is a garden-variety chase thriller. There's a good guy trying to get his life back*, and there's a bad guy trying to stop him. There's a woman and a child in danger. Eventually there's a showdown. That's it.
* Well, technically, the good guy is trying to get someone else's life back, as proxy. But you get the idea.
Basically, this is a late '80s or early '90s Harrison Ford movie, but with a sci-fi hook that's more pretext than premise. (Not to mention - and this should go without saying - Ryan Reynolds is no Harrison Ford.) What's most curious about it is the complete lack of curiosity at the heart of it. It's like someone started with a heady concept, and then tried to figure out the dullest way to use it. Mission accomplished, I guess.
Using a big idea as a cheap excuse for an action thriller isn't necessarily an automatic deal-breaker, but it's not a good start. It better be a damn good thriller on its own. Self/less is certainly not that. It's one of those movies that merely teases a much better movie that could have been. What's the fun in having an ambitious sci-fi conceit if you're only getting a CBS primetime drama out of it?
Imagine this: a rich and powerful man learns he has only a few months to live. All is not lost - an anonymous friend has made sure of that. He slipped this rich and powerful man a card - a secret location, an unlisted number - and planted an idea in his brain. This idea is called "shedding," and it promises this man salvation. It's not cheap ... but then, he's got plenty of money. He decides to go through with it. He dies, but his consciousness is transferred into a new vessel - young, strong, handsome, cut. OK, now imagine the possibilities. We're getting somewhere.
Now imagine this man, now going by the name of "Edward Hale" and living a luxurious, exciting life in the French Quarter, discovers that his new body was not some empty vessel after all, but a real man with a wife and daughter; a man who was killed - sacrificed - so the old rich guy could continue living. "Edward" (née Damian Hayes) finds out about the old life of his new body and puts himself - and this newly discovered family - in danger.
Alright, now that narrows our possibilities a bit, but there's still plenty to work with. So what else have we got?
Well ... nothing, really. That's pretty much where the idea ends. Chases and getaways. Advantage good guy, advantage bad guy. A bland twist, a shootout or two, a puzzle falls loosely into place, and good night. This is one of the most frustrating kinds of movies because it's so obvious it's not taking advantage of its own material. At a certain point in Self/less, I briefly forgot about the sci-fi concept, as the film had devolved into little more than Ryan Reynolds running away from faceless goons.
Worse yet, the movie nods just enough toward a more intriguing path that you can practically see the filmmakers pulling in the reins on their own ideas. "Nah, we're not feeling that ambitious today, let's just keep it simple." In one scene, for example, a character presumed dead reappears in a new body - and casually mentions that he does this all the time - giving us a glimpse of a story with bigger scope and wilder imagination. But that's really the last we hear of the idea. The screenplay leaves no room for anything that might actually be interesting.
Now, it's at this point in the review of any Tarsem Singh movie where we admit that, despite the underwhelming story, there's some real cinema to feast on. But not here. Not this time. It isn't that Self/less looks bad, per se - no Tarsem film is ever going to look bad. But his work, always so bracingly distinctive, has no such effect this time - and I'd like to not blame that entirely on the absence of Eiko Ishioka, Tarsem's long-time costume designer who died in 2012 after completing work on the director's last film, Mirror Mirror.
This is basically Singh's first feature set in a modern, real-world environment (The Cell was a present-day cop drama, but took place largely inside psychological dream space) and he's given us a movie that looks (and feels) like virtually any other contemporary thriller. Slick, glossy, grounded, flavorless - like something out of a Visa commercial, or a network series about big-city lawyers.
There are fleeting moments of surreal dream imagery - Damian's in-the-moment experience occasionally blending with distorted glimpses of the former existence his new body contained - but the movie never really builds on it.
The body itself is essential to the entire fabric of the narrative, but there's almost nothing corporeal about Tarsem's visuals here; there's little examination into what's happening to this character from a physical or psychological perspective. If you're familiar with any of his previous films, and how much they express with (and about) the human body, that's kinda shocking.
Many have brought up John Frankenheimer's Seconds as a comparison point for Self/less, but I found it wasn't nearly as similar as I'd been led to believe. The setups for the two films are vaguely the same, but used for entirely different purposes. In the former, the transfer to a new body was about escape - you went from one middle-aged body to another, and got the chance to start over from there, fulfill some sort of alternate destiny. Live a life you think you wanted or deserved. Self/less is more directly about exploitation of the poor by the rich (it's not enough that the wealth gap is expanding, the movie posits an extreme life-expectancy gap, too), and the possibility of a borderline Randian existence where the best and brightest are entitled to keep living on and on and on, quite literally at the expense of others.
And it would have been nice if the movie had actually made something of any of those concerns. But it doesn't.
It's rather telling that the best screenplay Tarsem has ever worked with - 2006's terrific The Fall - was co-authored by a 6-year-old. But for all of the frustrations I have had about his movies, at least there were always pockets of genius to be found in every gorgeous, fatally flawed enterprise of his. Self/less is the first of his career I can't say that about. It is the first of his career that doesn't feel like it was made by anyone.