Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 56 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sequences of Violence, some Sexuality, and Language
Directed by: Tarsem Singh
Written by: David Pastor & Alex Pastor
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Ben Kingsley, Matthew Goode, Michelle Dockery, Natalie Martinez, Victor Garber & Derek Luke
SELF/LESS doesn’t exactly have the most original premise in the world, but that doesn’t mean the film didn’t have potential. The marketing and promotional material had me sold on seeing this movie. All I could think was that it looked like an updated version of a TWILIGHT ZONE episode or the super underrated Rock Hudson flick SECONDS. It certainly helped that Tarsem Singh was behind the camera, because that meant the film would probably have good visuals. The cast, consisting of Ryan Reynolds (who showed acting chops in BURIED), Ben Kingsley (who has delivered plenty of quality performances), and Matthew Goode (who is very good at playing bad), made this look like it could be a surefire winner. I walked into SELF/LESS with hope in my eyes and a spring in my step. Cue me walking out as the end credits rolled two hours later. The film isn’t the travesty that some have apparently been making it out to be online, but it certainly is a letdown. Sacrificing a quiet and intelligent approach to a creepy idea in favor of generic action scenes and spoon-fed answers, SELF/LESS is serviceable…but that doesn’t make it any less of a disappointment.
Damian is a wealthy businessman dying from cancer. It seems that his wealth and power can’t save him from the approaching shroud of death. That’s when he receives a mysterious business card and is introduced to the super-secret process of “shedding.” This procedure involves Damien switching his consciousness out of his dying old body and into a healthy young body grown in a lab. Damien deludes himself into thinking that there could be no possible downside to “shedding” and decides to go through with it. Turns out that swapping bodies has its side effects, including hallucinations that seem oddly like memories from a stranger. It turns out that the body Damien is in might not be the lab-grown empty vessel he was promised and the sinister mad scientist behind shedding will do anything to keep that a secret. Cue car chases, gun fights, and clichés.
There are things about the cast that can be criticized as well as praised. As much as I enjoy Ben Kingsley and was looking forward to seeing him in this flick, he really seems to have taken this role for a quick paycheck. His performance is contained to the first fifteen minutes and then he disappears from the movie entirely. This was to be expected, but felt like a bit of a letdown as soon as he was out of the picture. This leaves us with Ryan Reynolds playing Damien in the “empty vessel.” Though he’s starred in big-budget failures in the past (GREEN LANTERN and R.I.P.D. immediately spring to mind), Ryan Reynolds actually put in a fairly good performance. I saw Damien in his old body (Kingsley) and Damien in his new body (Reynolds) as one character and that’s to be commended. Reynolds is good in the serious role that occasionally turns into an action hero, the latter of which is clichéd and a bit bland. Meanwhile, Matthew Goode (who has played evil people in the past) shows up once again as a psychopathic villain. He’s good in this sort of role and he doesn’t exactly seem to be phoning it in, but he does flirt with 007 villain territory.
The biggest problem with SELF/LESS is the screenplay. The film’s decision to make this more of an action movie as opposed to a brooding thriller seems like a big mistake. The marketing that misleadingly excludes any significant footage of gunfights and car chases seems to know this too. By resorting to cheap well-traveled clichés, SELF/LESS settles for easy answers and scenes that feel tonally out-of-place with the story it’s trying to tell. Would-be bombshell plot developments can be correctly predicted early on, one of which seemed entirely obvious but is later shown to be a failed surprise twist. The conclusion is anti-climactic and stupid…even when taken on the dusty action clichés this film so desperately relies on.
There’s a good movie lying somewhere inside of SELF/LESS. With a few more drafts and fine tuning, this could have been an updated and chilling take on SECONDS or an unnerving thought-provoking feature-length TWILIGHT ZONE episode. The quiet and smart approach would have made for a haunting sci-fi thriller. While the film is merely okay (serviceable performances, a few enjoyable scenes, and some cool ideas), SELF/LESS feels like a phoned in version of a really good story. It really is two different genres competing for the same movie…which is sort of ironic given the plot of this film.