I haven't always loved Tarsem Singh's films, but his ability to create stunning, elegant visuals has at least made his career interesting to follow. Unfortunately, none of his impressive visual skills are on display in Self/Less, a by-the-numbers sci-fi thriller that could have been directed by just about any competent filmmaker. It's a decent movie, but there's nothing in it to identify it as a Tarsem film, and that X factor was what I was hoping would take this film to the next level.
Director: Tarsem Singh
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Ben Kingsley, Matthew Goode
The story follows Damian Hale (Ben Kingsley), a wealthy real estate magnate who's referred to as "the man who built New York." He's afflicted with a disease and has about six months to live, so he tries to make things right with his estranged daughter — an activist who resents his attempts to buy his way back into her life — and agrees to an illegal medical procedure that will transfer his mind into the body of a younger, healthier man (Ryan Reynolds). Damian thinks his new body was grown in a lab, but hallucinations (that are actually flashbacks) clue him in to the fact that he's inhabiting the body of a man named Matt, who sold his body in order to pay his young daughter's expensive medical bills. Against the orders of the scheming head of the body transfer facility, Dr. Albright (Matthew Goode), Damian tracks down Matt's family and unintentionally embroils them in a fight for their lives.
The film's one small directorial flourish comes during a montage of Damian getting used to his new body as he plays basketball, beds random women, drives in his cool car, hangs out at clubs, and pops pills, which he's instructed to take in order to avoid hallucinations. It's stylishly edited, but like the rest of the film, it's disappointingly devoid of the gorgeous eye-popping imagery for which Singh is known.
Here's the thing about Self/Less: I found it completely predictable in nearly every way, but I wouldn't call it a bad movie. Is it derivative? Sure. But it's about as good as a film like this can be, with good actors delivering solid performances and convincing dialogue. The movie never really hit a wrong note, it's just that after seeing so many films with the same basic backbone of a guy trying to recover memories (Universal Soldier, The Bourne Identity, etc.), I was really hoping this would drop some sort of awesome twist or mind-blowing revelation that heightened the experience.
But that moment never came, so the film just sort of exists, never digging into the rich thematic territory that's seemingly begging to be mined from a movie with this premise. Everything about it is completely surface-level, with nothing to say about the nature of identity. The script doesn't give us enough time to get to know the real Damian before he undergoes his transformation, so Reynolds playing Ben Kingsley can't always translate the proper emotion for the moment because we're not even sure what the proper emotion for that character is.
Maybe if the script had given us a better sense of who Damian is, it would have clicked a little better. But in its current form, Self/Less seems destined to find a life on cable, where people will watch it simply because they're too lazy to change the channel to see if something better is on.