It hurts to see how far director Tarsem Singh has fallen. After the one-two punch of The Cell and The Fall, I was convinced that Singh (who just went by “Tarsem” back then) was nothing short of a visionary. Whatever you thought of the stories they offered (and I liked both, particularly The Fall), both of those movies were visually astonishing cinematic experiences boasting an abundance of uniquely memorable images. Alas, that was then, and this is now: Self/less is a thoroughly generic sci-fi thriller that feels like it could have been directed by anybody. It's one thing for a good director to make a bad movie; it's another thing for an innovative director to make a formulaic movie.
The plot more or less follows the three-part template of thousands of other sci-fi cautionary tales:
1. Somebody participates in a groundbreaking-but-risky scientific experiment.
2. Everything is great!
3. Everything is terrible.
The first part of that formula in Self/less involves a wealthy businessman named Damian (Ben Kingsley, Shutter Island), who has been told that he only has a few months left to live. Determined not to let nature take its course without putting up a fight, Damian pays a visit to a research lab offering promises of immortality... or at least a second dose of life. The enigmatic Professor Albright (Matthew Goode, Watchmen) claims to have figured out a way to transfer a person's consciousness into a younger, healthier body. Who does the young body belong to? Nobody. Albright has also figured out how to artificially grow human beings.
The rules are simple, but strict: Damian has to convincingly fake his own death, and he has to avoid contact with anyone from his old life once the transfer takes place (including his daughter Claire – a thankless role for Downton Abbey's Michelle Dockery). After that, he'll be required to undergo a training program and become comfortable with his new identity. Damian signs the papers, undergoes the procedure and bam, suddenly he looks exactly like Ryan Reynolds (Green Lantern).
Now we're on to the second part of the formula, which we largely breeze through via a series of montages. Damian uses his new body in precisely the ways you'd expect him to. He plays sports! He stays out partying all night long! He eats the foods he used to have allergies to! He has sex with attractive young women! He has some more sex! Then he has even more sex! Then he... well, you get the idea. So, to summarize: a rich guy spends a lot of money, gets a Ryan Reynolds body and has a great time.
Alas, we must now move on to the third and most substantial – well, most prolonged - part of the formula, which is where everything goes haywire. It seems that there are side effects to this relatively new procedure, one of which is having weird memories slipping in out of nowhere. Who do these memories belong to? Wait, was this amazing new body actually made in a lab? Or (gasp!) was it stolen from someone else? Suddenly, the benevolent scientists who have been helping Damian start to turn sinister, and our troubled hero begins attempting to untangle a vast web of deceit.
The film goes pretty much exactly where you expect it to go, but even more disappointingly, it never manages to inject any real energy into this routine tale of slippery sci-fi. The abundance of action scenes in the film's second half feel forced in, as if some executive demanded that a certain percentage of the screentime be devoted to things blowing up real good (the contrast between that material and the rest of the film is particularly striking, as Self/less is a relatively muted, chatty affair right up until it isn't). Singh's knack for visual flair seems to have vanished without a trace, as one scene after another offers generic production design, routine point-and-shoot cinematography and a lifeless, sterile blue-and-chrome color palette.
The performances do little to enliven the movie. Kingsley is an old pro, but he's only onscreen for fifteen minutes and his performance is weighed down by an unpersuasive New York accent. Reynolds brings some effective soulfulness to his performance, but either he or Kingsley has been miscast: we never get the sense that we're seeing Kingsley's character trapped inside another body. It's a shame the actors don't even make a half-hearted effort at imitating each other (which is half the fun of most body-swap films). Goode's one-dimensional villain is a good deal less interesting than the other baddies he's played, and Natalie Martinez (CSI: NY) can't do much with the thin role she's given (the nature of which I probably shouldn't spoil).
I suppose it isn't fair to say that the film's visual design is entirely generic. There's one set that looks striking: a preposterously lavish apartment adorned with gold leaves, which feels like the sort of thing a person buys after they have already bought everything they actually want. The apartment is real: it belongs to none other than Donald Trump, who gets a special thanks in the film's end credits. Now there's an idea for a movie: cast Donald Trump as an arrogant old douchebag who finally learns that money can't buy everything. Actually, never mind the movie. Make that happen for real.
Rating: ★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 117 minutes
Release Year: 2015