While I was watching Self/less, the word that kept popping into my mind was “messy.” It is a messy film, with many points of interest, multiple sources for character motivation, and frantic sways between emotion and action. Even with all of these competing elements, the film generally works.
Directed by Tarsem Singh (The Fall, The Cell, Mirror Mirror, amongst other visually ambitious projects), Self/less is a science fiction thriller. It starts with an old man. Damian (Ben Kingsley) is not only an aged real estate magnate, he is rapidly dying of cancer. Damian, not one to back down from any challenge, starts to engage with a doctor who has created the new procedure of “shedding.” Dr. Albright (Matthew Goode) arranges for Damian to undergo this groundbreaking process. He sheds his old body, and wakes transformed into a new Damian (Ryan Reynolds). Predictably, nothing in life – or death – is that easy and all sorts of dramas and ethical issues arise from both shedding and Albright’s moral character.
Though Reynolds is an excellent actor, and can carry both the weighty emotion and physical action his performance is one of the biggest issues I had with Self/less. It is not that he does not perform well, but rather he does not act like Ben Kingsley did when we first met Damian. Kingsley had a comically thick New York accent and a steely glare that would give the Corleones a run for their money. He is self-serving and thinks that money can solve all of his problems. But none of these traits carry over to Reynolds’s Damien. He is a touch cocky, but the swagger and lack of empathy are all but missing after the rebirth. This is not to say that the character is uninteresting; it just lacks that continuity that I was anticipating in a film about immortality.
What the film does do quite well is explore the scientific and societal implications of the major questions that science fiction tends to raise. Self/less takes place in our times and reminds us that we are not yet capable of dealing of this magnitude. Just because Albright is able to shift consciousness and memory from one body to another does not mean that he should. One of the complications that arises in the film is also directly related to the mental progress of shedding outpacing the physical and medical progress. What are scientists to do while waiting for one aspect of their research to catch up with everything else? Albright does not merely sit and twiddle his thumbs, but that may not be the virtuous thing to do.
Even in raising all of these cumbersome topics Self/less does not become merely a thinking film. The action sprouts up whenever our characters least expect it, which lends to some decent jumps for the audience. There is a car chase, a few shoot outs, and even a chase through the woods just to prove that heady science fiction need not be boring.
All of these problems and strengths in Self/less are what ultimately make it messy. If you expect a traditional, linear plot you will be disappointed. If you expect an exclusively cerebral examination of moral and ethical issues that arise from hypothetical medical technologies, you will be disappointed. But if you are alright with a messy film that finds its footing along the way, and is unconcerned with your preexisting expectations, then you will likely enjoy the mess.
Director: Tarsem Singh
Film Length: 117 minutes
Release Date: July 10, 2015
Distributor: Gramercy Pictures