It’s tough to know what to make of director Tarsem Singh. Based on his films The Cell and The Fall, he’s clearly got a remarkable imagination and a knack for delivering breathtaking images. His storytelling skills on the other hand are questionable at best. Both movies coasted by on pretty images with plots that were little more than an excuse to stage those images. It’s a common problem with directors like Singh who emerged from commercials and music videos where the image is king. Sadly, his latest features Self/less only makes it more difficult to judge whether or not he is an interesting filmmaker worth watching. Aside from meticulous framing and a few nice images of overblown grandiose wealth in the early going, the movie could have been directed by anyone. It’s just a generic sci-fi thriller and not even a very good one. Maybe the guy isn’t suited to feature filmmaking after all.
Ben Kingsley stars as a super rich and powerful businessman. You know, the type who can crush everyone in his way professionally, but can’t seem to achieve anything in his personal life beyond soul crushing loneliness. However, one thing that Kingsley isn’t will to let get in his way is terminal cancer. Sure, his body is guaranteed to die, but that’s all he’s willing to give. For the bargain price of $250 million Kingsley hires the clearly evil Matthew Goode to transport his mind into another body. Luckily for Kingsley, his mind ends up in Ryan Reynolds’ body and he gets to live in a sweet New Orleans’ apartment. That means it’s time for a montage of pick up basketball and sexual conquest, because as we all know those are the great activities of youth. Everything seems great until Kingsley stops taking his special body-swapping medication and starts having strange visions of another life. In fact, it feels like his life as if the new body he was told was a clone once belonged to someone else.
At the center of Self/less is actually a rather clever and disturbing sci-fi conceit. It’s enough to make you think that this might be an interesting movie, but don’t fall for that trap. You see, all of those interesting ideas are stolen in tact from John Frankenheimer’s 1966 masterpiece Seconds. In fact, the first chunk of the movie steals so much from Seconds that it’s surprising that no lawsuits were filed. The only possible explanation is the fact that aside from the set up story beats, Self/less essentially leaves out everything that made Seconds special. This isn’t really an examination of the nature of self and the perils of science gone wrong. No, it’s really just a stupid bang-bang action movie and not even a particularly good one.
While one might hope that Singh’s natural gift with visuals would transfer over to staging some stunning action sequences, sadly that’s not the case. Oh sure, there are car chases and shootouts and all those traditional action tropes, but they’re all blandly and impersonally designed in a manner that prevents them from being exciting in any way. There’s an unshakable sense that Singh and his crew are merely going through the motions on this one and don’t particularly care if what they are doing is thrilling or even particularly interesting.
Sadly that laziness translates over to the actors as well. Ben Kingsley defines his role entirely with a New Yawk accent so over-the-top and ridiculous that it’s impossible to take his performance seriously for a second (which is a real shame since Kingsley is an actor who rarely delivers sub par work). Reynolds is in full on bland hero mode, not for a moment slipping in any of the wit or spark he brings to his best performances. Oddly, he doesn’t even bother to mimic Kingsley’s work in any way, which you’d think would be the bare minimum requirement of a body-swapping performance (even Nic Cage and John Travolta put that effort into Face/Off). He just doesn’t seem to care. Only Matthew Goode delivers anything close to a memorable performance as a slimy evil scientist, but given all the mediocrity surrounding him that doesn’t add up to much.
Self/less is a pretty sad movie to watch overall. Given all the time, money, and talent involved it’s amazing how lazy and impersonal the final project feels. Surely at some point someone must have been excited about this idea to think it would be worth making as a movie. Unfortunately there’s no real passion in the final product, as if everyone involved figured their only audience would be tired and passionless viewers, so they might as well approach their jobs the same way. It’s a real shame because there are some strong ideas here that feel worthy of a movie. On the plus side that movie already exists in Seconds. So I suppose that if you have any interest in seeing Self/less, the best approach is just to track down a copy of Seconds instead. That’s the movie you really want to see. This one is just posturing.