Such a great idea for a movie. Such a dull, uninspired film. Here’s the premise: what if you could transfer your consciousness to another body and add decades to your life? The catch: you can’t interact with anyone from your old life, you have to start over with the new body. Would you do it?
The central deceit of the story is that the new body isn’t actually a perfect human grown in a laboratory, as über-rich “old” Damian (Ben Kingsley) is told by cookie-cutter scientist-with-a-secret Albright (Matthew Goode), but a healthy human being who had a life of their own until they died. This is shades of the more interesting, albeit flawed The Island from explosion-meister Michael Bay, though that was focused on bio-identical organ cloning than on the transfer of consciousness from one human to another.
Self/less revolves around a core problem with the process: The original person’s memories have a tendency to get in the way of the new consciousness. No worries, there’s a pill for that. If you don’t. Run. Out…
“Old” Damian (Kingsley) has his consciousness transferred to “young” Damian (Ryan Reynolds) in a completely daft process that involves spinning magnets and cables, a mad scientist lab that looks more like a low budget update of the original Universal Horror Frankenstein lab than anything you’d expect in a modern big-budget sci-fi thriller. That’s okay, turns out the process has a fatal flaw anyway, one that makes no sense either but ends up critical to the last act of the story. ‘nuf said on that.
I love old B-movies so the mysterious, unexplained pill that somehow mutes the original consciousness of the body without explanation and even the high school science fair consciousness-transfer equipment is acceptable. What’s not is that there are huge plot holes and hiccups and, far worse, really poor performances turned in by both of the leading actors in the film.
It’s hard to remember that Ben Kingsley is more properly addressed as Sir Ben Kingsley and that he’s an Academy-award-winning actor who has delivered powerful performances in superb films like Gandhi, Schindler’s List and Hugo, because he brings none of that gravitas to Self/less but instead walks through his performance with nary an emotive scene.
And then there’s the late, great career of former rising star Ryan Reynolds who did a splendid job in the recent indie drama Woman in Gold, but also delivered pedestrian, uninspired performances in the uninspired Green Lantern, not to mention R.I.P.D. and Safe House. And it’s not just that he has bad luck in scripts, his performance in Self/less completely misses the mark. To show one person inhabiting another’s body, you need to at least put some effort into matching their speech patterns and mannerisms (think of the delightful Tom Hanks film Big). Reynolds offers up nothing here.
Remember how The Sixth Sense had its big surprise twist and that it forced you to reevaluate everything you’d seen before that moment in the film? Self/less tries something similar — no spoiler here! — but it ends up falling flat, because director Tarsem Singh apparently forgets that a conspiracy twist is only interesting when the audience is engaged and identifying with one or more of the characters that are threatened by the conspirators.
So what did I actually like about Self/less? Well, there are some good action sequences, including a pretty epic multi-car chase. The New Orleans exterior shots are fun because it’s such a photogenic city, and the premise, of course, is terrific. The problem is in the delivery. From the performances to the sets, the inane underlying technology to the overwrought “twist”, to the rather idiotic ending, “Self/less” just doesn’t deliver the goods.