For better or worse, some film directors have such a unique visual style that brief scenes – sometimes even single frames – can identify their work as unique to them. Wes Anderson, Zack Snyder and possibly Quentin Tarentino come to mind, but the lesser known Tarsem Singh fits the bill as well as any of them. His films – including The Cell, The Fall, Immortals and Mirror Mirror – may vary in overall quality, but they each display such a sumptuous and rich appreciation of color, movement and landscape that his work stands visibly apart from the crowd.
Well thankfully that’s over. It seems he’s grown out of his artsy phase with his latest effort, Self/less, and now for the first time ever a Tarsem film can be called drab, dull and lifeless.
Damian (Ben Kingsley) is an old man with immense wealth, an apartment that would make Donald Trump swoon, and an ex-wife and grown daughter who barely tolerate him. He’s also dying from untreatable cancer. Someone tips him off to Dr. Albright (Matthew Goode) and his revolutionary process that, in effect, extends a person’s life, and after a brief hesitation he signs up for the top secret procedure. Albright has designed a machine that transfers a person’s mind – not their physical brain, but the memories, skills and personality – into another body through a process called shedding. (Sadly, it’s not nearly as fun as Society’s shunting.) Damian simply chooses an empty flesh husk, grown in the lab and free of defects, and after a brief getting-to-know-you period he’s out enjoying life again.
It’s a marvel at first as Damien’s new body (Ryan Reynolds) offers a degree of interaction and physical confidence that he hasn’t known in decades, but when he starts having hallucinations – and realizes they might actually be another man’s memories – he discovers that his quest for immortality has landed him in the fight of his life.
It’s difficult to picture what exactly attracted Tarsem to this project – it’s set entirely in the real world, the modern world, and offers no real room for visual shenanigans, imagination and wonder. The minor sci-fi element allows for some high-tech gadgetry, but it resembles nothing more than twin MRI machines in practice, and the enticing (and admittedly unoriginal) idea at its center is left to devolve into little more than preamble to a generic action film.
Happily some of those action beats are well crafted and offer up a modicum of excitement, and they’re fortunate embellishments to a script (by David Pastor and Alex Pastor) that sets up an intellectual conflict that it fails to explore. Damian is a cruel and calculated man, and his desire for this new lease on life should be cause for selfish celebration, but instead the younger variation – Reynolds doing fine work aside from not embodying anything about Kingsley (including his thick New York accent, wouldn’t he still have an accent?) – is soulful and guilt-ridden. The transition makes some sense, but it happens with little to no internal argument or on-screen representation. The film simply isn’t interested in exploring the idea of immortality, step-based or otherwise, and that doesn’t change even when people showing up in new bodies becomes a frequent “surprise” on the path towards the expected ending.
It’s Reynolds’ show from beginning to end, but the supporting cast offers some recognizable faces in forgettable roles. Kingsley has little to do here as he’s dropped into Reynolds’ body fairly quickly, but he makes the most of his time. Natalie Martinez is challenged with a somewhat annoying character but manages the film’s only real emotional beat in the scene where she first sees the young Damian. Michelle Dockery aims for a similar heart tug, but she can’t shake the cold, unemotional shadow of her Downton Abbey character. Victor Garber turns up in the exact role you’d expect (along with the exact character turn) and brings the Garber goods, but it’s Goode who’s as close as the film gets to a standout performance with his coldly ambitious scientist that both convinces and creeps.
Self/less is mediocre and instantly forgettable, but for a Tarsem film it’s also immensely disappointing.
The Upside: Some good action beats; Ryan Reynolds is solid; fun flamethrower bit
The Downside: Generic scripting; so many montages