A film that touches upon transhumanism but has plot points pivot around Google searches. A movie whose characters are concerned about the sanctity of human life while accruing a sizeable body count. “Self/Less” consistently chooses convention over conviction toward the more interesting subject matter embedded in the story. If you’re going to make a movie where the premise centers around brain transference, the road most often traveled is not the way you want to go.
When the film opens we meet Damian (Ben Kingsley, masticating his lines through a Nu Yoik ahk-cent), who is both rich and ruthless. We know he’s rich because he lives in a magnificent apartment with a perfect view of Central Park. But in case you were out getting popcorn and missed that shot, his wealth is emphasized by his distractingly, hilariously opulent home furnishings, which are entirely made of gold, including a glittering staircase, and marble fountain. Essentially, he lives in a Scrooge McDuck comic. Meanwhile, his cold-blooded business acumen is witnessed in one scene where he dresses down and effectively ruins the career of a brash young executive (played by Sam Page, a.k.a. Connor Ellis from “House Of Cards”) who dared to make a lucrative real estate deal without paying the old guard proper respect. And yet, Damian’s riches and success have no effect on the cancer ravaging his body, giving him six months to live. But Damian is rich and important enough to have access to a radical and experimental medical technique that will give him the opportunity to live another lifetime.
“Death has some side effects,” warns Matthew Goode, a mysterious scientist and doctor who makes Damian an irresistible offer. He’ll essentially download everything in his brain to a younger, sexier body (Ryan Reynolds), and even arrange brand new bank accounts so Damian can live again with all the money and comfort he’s accustomed to. Damian undergoes the procedure and soon learns about the aforementioned byproduct of zapping your mind into a new shell: he’s plagued by crippling flashbacks of memories that don’t belong to him. The doctor provides some pills and assurances that these cerebral bumps in the road will soon pass, but when Damian digs a bit deeper he learns his “new body” actually once belonged to a young soldier with a wife and child. Like the Grinch, Damian’s previously non-existent conscience suddenly grows three sizes in one day, and he sets out to make things right. However, for the doctor, that might mean his wildly illegal operation being exposed, and that just won’t do, so as Damian tries to make sense of the younger man’s life that infects his brain, he must do so as he dodges a team of henchmen.
Though not as confusing as the story might sound, “Self/Less” is often stupider than you might expect. John Woo’s superficially similar and much more fun “Face/Off” has more internal logic and self-awareness than this film where characters don’t have much in the way of motivation except to react to whatever uninventive obstacle screenwriters David and Alex Pastor toss in their path. Thus, Damian is able to draw upon Jason Bourne style fighting skills from the reserve of his new brain’s past memories, and yet, basic information about the previous life that belonged to his newly inhabited body remains puzzlingly locked up. Meanwhile, the doctor’s array of thugs, in striving to contain Damian and keep the medical operation secret, arguably draw more attention to themselves by torching buildings with flamethrowers and engaging in late night car chases across stretches of highway. For all the intellectual promise the concept of “Self/Less” could potentially offer, it very quickly shifts gears into a rote, unimaginative, and uninteresting chase movie.
This lack of engagement, along with story’s deeper ideas, is made all the more disappointing considering Tarsem Singh (“The Cell,” “The Fall”) is behind the camera. An undeniably gifted visualist, he turns in a shockingly workmanlike effort that displays almost none of his gifts for singular imagery. A movie which offers avenues of opportunity to explore memory and science fiction in the realm of a summer blockbuster would seem to be manna for a filmmaker like Singh, but it’s almost as if he’s actively running against his instincts with “Self/Less,” which is so perfunctorily shot it might as well be anonymous. Only one brief montage sequence, when Damian revels in taking his new body for a test drive of non-stop boozing and sexing, finds Singly showing off his talent for blending music, photography, and editing into the kind of energetic verve that first put him on the map as a music video and commercial director. Otherwise, the direction in “Self/Less” is as airless and unremarkable as the story itself.
Indeed, it’s a sense of wonder that’s the biggest and most glaring missing component in the film. Having sex with hot young women for the first time in decades is about the extent of Damian’s appreciation for living in a ripped new body with an entire world of fresh choices in front of him. But even Ryan Reynolds, who can mug his way charmingly through the most egregious material (see “The Green Lantern”), can’t get invested enough to seem remotely interested in finding the various layers the role presents. This general lack of investment that pervades the film doesn’t give much incentive for the audience to get involved either, nor is there much reward if they do. “Self/Less” is brain/less entertainment, but if there’s any consolation, the impression it leaves is so fleeting that you can soon replace it with better movie memories. [F]