Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
Self/less tells a frustratingly familiar story with an intriguing premise. When the overly wealthy individuals in the world feel that their lives are coming to an end, they can posthumously extend their mortality by transferring themselves into a test-tube created vessel. They resemble humans and ultimately carry the same genetic tissue, only that their minds are empty and ready to be manipulated. At least, that’s how Albright (Matthew Goode) explains his scientific experiments that have purportedly been used just seven times to potential investors. We know anytime a genius with glasses pops on a screen in a film like this, he cannot be trusted. That’s one of the many predictable tropes that Tarsem Singh’s Self/less uses as the film navigates practically every familiar element of the sci-fi “man created something potentially evil” subgenre. Yet the film mostly tells its story with urgency and tact, deriving strong performances from its leads and mostly making sense when most others would toss logic out the window. It makes the film both predictably enjoyable and inherently simple, which should appease certain audiences and frustrate others.
The film opens on a dying Damian (Ben Kingsley), a billionaire who has amassed his wealth through real estate and other shady business deals that get someone that much money. He has recently been referenced to a company that can “shed,” meaning you can transfer your mind from your dying body to another younger, more lively one. His business partner and close friend, Martin (Victor Garber), helps him make arrangements for when the company moves on without its CEO, and Damian prepares for life after death. That old saying certainly has a new meaning now, doesn’t it? Alas. He gets transferred to a new body and goes by Edward (Ryan Reynolds), leading a single life in New Orleans while occasionally going through bouts of seizures when he doesn’t take his medicine. These seizures involve intense “hallucinations” that feel like memories, linking him back to the Iraq War and to a Latina woman and her daughter that seem to hold an emotional connection to him. Young Damian, or whatever you want to call him, knows that something is wrong. This isn’t what he paid for.
The story then escalates and mostly devolves into impressive action scenes that move at a brisk pace. There’s never really a moment of incompetence or halting in the narrative, a sign that the story is well constructed and balanced between action and drama. But one of the most telling things about the film is that, after leaving the theater, I attempted to engage with the film and talk about what I had seen with a friend. We mostly said we enjoyed it, liked the performances, etc., but we could not pinpoint a single part that popped or made us enthusiastic about our entertainment. Simply put, Self/less falls into that bland category of serviceable science fiction that doesn’t particularly provoke or excite. It’s not an original premise in terms of how many mind swapping or altering science-fiction films we’ve seen in recent years, even if Singh and writers David and Alex Pastor make the film an emotionally impactful journey. There’s always precedent for something happening in the narrative, strong foreshadowing, a sense of emotional stake. Yet all of those elements are handled in ways that better, more insightful films have accomplished. That doesn’t make Self/less a bad film, just a lifeless one.
Grade: ★★★ (out of 5)