ByBenjamin Marlatt, writer at

Damian Hale (Ben Kingsley) is a billionaire businessman who’s dying of cancer. Now in the final stages with only weeks left to live, Hale decides to undergo a new radical medical procedure by geneticist Professor Albright (Matthew Goode) known as “shedding”, in which his consciousness will be transferred to a new, genetically engineered body.

Following the procedure, Damien, now called Edward (Ryan Reynolds), starts a new, luxurious life in New Orleans. However, he suffers from disturbing images, and when he takes it upon himself to seek out the origin of these images he learns an unsettling truth about Albright’s company, one that Albright and his men will go to great lengths to keep secret.

Self/less, director Tarsem Singh’s fifth film in fifteen years, will certainly remind viewers of previous films like John Frankenheimer’s 1966 sci-fi flick Seconds or Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall. In fact, the similarities between Self/less and Frankenheimer’s film are so evident this might as well have been called Seconds.

Despite the similarities, at its core, Self/less packs a potential-filled premise that raises engaging questions. How far would we go to achieve immortality? Could we bring ourselves to help destroy someone else’s identity? If revealed to either member’s family, how would they handle such an event? The ethical dilemmas raised in screenwriter brothers Alex and David Pastor’s script, combined with Tarsem Singh’s visual flair as a filmmaker, are strong ingredients for what could be an compelling film.

And yet this two hour slice of mediocrity is what we end up getting.

To think I was so optimistic with this quote from my January 2015 review of The Cell – “Hopefully, Selfless, a sci-fi thriller starring Ryan Reynolds, Matthew Goode, Michelle Dockery and Ben Kingsley due out sometime later this year, turns things around for him.”

So young back then… yet so naive. If only he knew what I know now.

To be fair, this film isn’t as horrible as I’m making it sound. It’s far from the worst film I’ve seen this year; it’s just very disappointing. The setup is intriguing, but as the film moseys along its way to the end, it never develops any of the interesting concepts posed. Characters too easily accept some Earth-shattering revelations and relationships are rushed, particularly once Damian is introduced to the family of the body he’s occupying. Naturally, complications are created from the unfolding events and the grand scheme of it all is to give Damian’s cold-hearted businessman some humanity, but it all feels forced.

The most glaring of all problems, though, is that Ryan Reynolds’s character, aka Damian Hale 2.0, is nothing like Ben Kingsley’s Damian, even though we’re informed he’s the same person regardless of the change. I’m not talking about the fact that Reynolds looks and sounds nothing like Kingsley; that’s the least of the problems. It’s that character-wise, “Edward”, as he’s called, has none of the traits that defined Damian. The cold, ruthless, and pretty much all-around cliche “I’m rich so that means I’m a dickhead” aspects that make the character who he is are now gone. It’s as if he’s become a completely different person at the snap of a finger.

Instead of taking advantage of its promising premise, Self/less (the slash is absolutely essential to the film’s thought-provoking and artistic deepness) simply devolves down into a cliche-riddled chase between the good guys and the government agent-like baddies. All the fascinating elements that would’ve made this a much better movie had any effort went into fleshing them out get buried underneath too many tiresome action sequences that carry no weight to them ’cause none of the characters involved are developed enough to care about the peril they find themselves in. Not that us caring matters, ’cause the film cheats its way to a Wayne’s World style “mega happy ending” (like remembering at the last minute to wrap up the forgotten relationship Damian had with his daughter Lady Mary Crawley).


What’s most surprising is the staggering lack of style which has always been Singh’s strength as a filmmaker. It’s been used to great effect before with his first two films, The Cell and The Fall, and even Immortals, which sucked, still looked good. Everything here, however, just looks so bland and routine. I get that perhaps Singh wants to break out of his comfort zone and prove he can do a straightforward movie, but he’s getting no help from the script, so a little bit of visual flourish might’ve gone a long way in making this movie a little more entertaining, or at least keeping me awake.

One or the other.

Save Kingsley, who’s talent is wasted in a cliche rich prick role for just a couple scenes, the cast manage with the material they got. Reynolds is the type of talented actor that you’d never expect to be as talented as he really is judging from the number of crappy films he’s been in. This guy can’t get a break. Yes, he had the darkly entertaining The Voices earlier this year, but going by its box office results, it’s safe to say I was the only one that saw it. The effort from him here is noticeable, and he does fit the mold of a leading action star well, but he can only do so much with the disappointing script.

In his defense, this film is much better than The Change-Up, that other God awful role reversal film of his.

Matthew Goode, always a welcome presence, is stuck playing the obligatory villain that likes to talk and talk so much you wonder why the protagonist hasn’t killed him already. Yet I gotta admit I was entertained with what he brought to the role. Goode has such a great ability to command such menace in a quiet, smooth-talking manner, and whenever he was onscreen I was never bored.

There’s a potentially good movie somewhere inside the final product we end up getting here. The premise and the ideas behind it are inviting, and it boasts a talented cast and stylish director. However, Self/less, frustratingly, ignores any opportunity it has to develop its compelling ideas, and settles for nothing more than lackluster action sequences that are void of any style or excitement. Coming from a filmmaker who kickstarted his career with great style and excitement, the film’s lack of both is an unfortunate surprise.

I give Self/less a C- (★★).

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