SELF/LESS Movie Review – Tarsem Singh Died For Our Sins
Was Tarsem Singh, the onetime “visionary” director behind such over-production-designed films like Immortals, The Fall, and The Cell replaced by a recent, anonymous film school grad? That’s the only logical conclusion anyone familiar with his work will make after the end credits roll on Self/less, the latest film credited to someone named “Tarsem Singh.” Or maybe Tarsem Singh doesn’t really exist except as a catchall name for a director like Alan Smithee was once for directors who didn’t want their names to appear anywhere near a film irredeemably compromised by studio or financier interference. As enjoyable as a conversation about Tarsem Singh’s reversion to the mean of Hollywood hackdom might be, the only verifiable truth is perhaps the least interesting or compelling: Singh took a bland, generic, formulaic script and made a blank, generic, formulaic action-thriller, yet another doomed-to-fail attempt to resuscitate Ryan Reynolds’ flagging acting career (next year’s Deadpool will likely do the trick).
If we’re being lazy and we will be, if only temporarily, Self/less can be described as Seconds crossed with Freejack spliced with DNA drawn from The Sixth Day, except only in part. Self/less centers on Damian Hale (Sir Ben Kingsley), a dying, real-estate developer with billions in overseas bank accounts, but only months, if not days before he has to shuffle off this mortal coil for the next. He has a legacy of sorts, of course: The buildings stretching far and wide that bear his name, but all that construction has left him a hollow, broken man, incapable of connecting with his only daughter, Claire (Michelle Dockery), or doing anything worthwhile with his billions and billions, like setting up charities or funding the college educations of underprivileged teens in New York’s five boroughs. But a business card (the word “Phoenix” is prominently displayed as the company’s name) dropped off by person or persons unknown promises him a second chance, a new life (not off-world), something like immortality: a new body with Hale’s newly transferred consciousness.
Despite doubts, less about ethics or morality, and more about practicality and fraud, Hale eventually jumps at the chance for a new body, transferring not only his consciousness into a body the company’s enigmatic CEO/founder, Dr. Albright (Matthew Goode), promises has been grown in a vat, but a cool $250 million to Albright’s company, a sum that apparently goes unnoticed by Hale’s business partner and longtime friend, Martin (Victor Garber). Post-transfer, Hale wakes up in a new body (Ryan Reynolds) with that out-of-the-box smell. It takes a few days or weeks to acclimate into his new, younger, whiter, taller body, but acclimate he does. He even becomes a baller, as in a basketball(er), playing and winning in pick-up games near his new home in New Orleans. Hale’s perfect life, however, doesn’t stay perfect for long. Increasingly powerful hallucinations, controlled only by frequent doses of Albright-provided medication, eventually leads Hale to discover the truth: Another man sold his body in exchange for enough money to fund his dying daughter’s medical treatments.
We’re expected to believe Hale, until then a ruthless businessman turned all-around hedonist, grows enough of a conscience to not only question Albright’s methods and his ill-informed decision to transfer his consciousness into another man’s body, but to show up at the semi-dead man’s house, wearing the man’s body, to meet the man’s grieving widow, Madeline (Natalie Martinez), who’s understandably shocked, then overjoyed by her presumed dead husband’s return. Hale also acquires a temporary daughter, Anna (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen), who sees Hale wearing her father’s body and mistakes him for same (also understandable). With that pesky conscience knowing at Hale and Albright’s men hot on his trail for violating the Terms of his User Agreement, Self/less slips and slides into clichéd action-thriller territory and never returns. Singh stages subsequent action scenes with economic efficiency, but without any of the visual flourishes that once elevated him above his music video peers. Self/less is so blandly shot, choreographed, and edited that little, if any, of Singh’s visual style can be found in a single frame.
The script, credited to David and Alex Pastor, briefly touches on a few topical ideas, including the by now overly familiar conflict between the haves and the have nots (the 1% versus everyone else), morality and ethics in science (hello, Dr. Frankenstein), the nature of identity (hello, Descartes), and a few other, semi-related ideas, but never with any depth or complexity. Not that we should expect anything but superficiality from a Hollywood film squeezed into the action-thriller genre and/or mode. If Self/less is any evidence, we shouldn’t, but we can certainly ask for and hope for more from material ostensibly aimed at mainstream audiences. The word “mainstream” shouldn’t be synonymous with dumb or dumbed-down. It’s a pity Singh, his screenwriters, or the studio that financed Self/less didn’t think differently.