“Self/less” is a mediocre thriller with a decent premise, but it gets additional points off for being irritating. What makes it irritating is that its an apparent rip-off of another movie that did something similar, only better. That is, much better, as in the difference between a borderline classic and a movie no one will be thinking about past next Tuesday.
The idea here is that Ben Kingsley, as a fabulously wealthy and fatally ill man, agrees to have his consciousness transferred to another body, so as to start life anew. He undergoes a secret and illegal procedure, engineered by a private company, and goes from a sick man staring into the grave to a handsome young man picking up women in nightclubs. In addition to this new lease on life, he gets to keep most of his money.
The only catch is that he has to completely give up his former identity. Everyone he’s ever known must believe that he’s dead. He has to start all over, and even with every advantage in the world, that’s hard. He is losing his life just as much as if he’s died, only this way he gets to stick around and mourn. This leads our hero from an unspecific restlessness into trouble.
If this sounds like a promising avenue for existential exploration, don’t see “Self/less.” Instead rent the 1966 John Frankenheimer movie, “Seconds,” which deals with the fascinating consequences of the premise — such as what it is like to be 70 but look 40 — while still being more dramatic and exciting, and considerably more creepy, than “Self/less.”
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Did no one connected with this film — the actors, the writers or director Tarsem Singh — grasp that half the appeal of the set-up derives from our believing that Ryan Reynolds is really Ben Kingsley inside? Perhaps not. After all, Kingsley starts the movie with an almost impossibly thick New York accent. Yet when he becomes Reynolds, suddenly he sounds like Ryan Reynolds in every other movie. Why would someone who talks in such a distinctive way lose that upon waking up in another body?
This kind of imprecision is hardly encouraging, and it indicates something that becomes clear soon enough. The filmmakers aren’t really interested in the ideas “Self/less” incites. Rather they simply intend to use the premise as the platform for another typical action thriller. Thus, we end up with Reynolds running around with a gun. And there are bad guys coming after him, as if anyone watching should care.
Singh has visual flair, and the script, by David and Alex Pastor, gives him opportunities to express, through images, a single consciousness being bombarded by memories from conflicting sources. Singh’s elan buys him some time, but ultimately there’s no concealing the emptiness of the enterprise.
In essence, everything good in “Self/less” was derived from “Seconds,” and everything bad the writers and the director came up with on their own.