Self/less and all the images you see in this review are owned by Focus Features and Gramercy Pictures
Directed by Tarsem Singh
When did we get to the point that great actors like Sir Ben Kingsley and Ryan Reynolds are EXPECTED to be in crap like this? Sure, Ben Kingsley at least has been on a downward slope for a while now, but does anyone else remember that Ryan Reynolds was HUGE just a few years ago? I guess this is what happens when you somehow wind up in three of the worst comic book movies at a time when they’ve never been better. Now he’s in yet another body switching film, only this one might just be worse than his last one if you can believe it. Just how bad is this movie about Ben Kingsley turning into a thirty something white dude? Let’s find out!!
The movie is about Damien Hale (Ben Kingsley) who’s a billionaire architect or something and is nearing the end of his life. He has pretty cancer which is known to affect people in movies and it tends to present itself with absolutely zero external symptoms other than a bad cough. Being the rich dude that he is, he finds a way to cheat death in the form of a brand new super-duper secret medical procedure called “shedding” where you basically swap brains with someone else through magnets. Sounds like a good deal, right? WRONG!! Apparently this super-duper secret company doing these super-duper secret medical procedures has some skeletons in its closet and Gandhi in Green Lantern’s body is going to kick some ass until he gets the answers he needs!
The biggest problem with this movie is that it has absolutely nothing to offer if you’ve seen even one science fiction or evil company conspiracy film. Movies don’t have to be ground breaking for them to be enjoyable, but this one is straight up sterile, what with its completely witless dialogue, lack of any depth in regards to the body switching premise, simplistic moralizing, bare minimum and out of place action, and a script that’s SO predictable, you’re almost expect the half assed twists to actually be red herrings for whatever the REAL twist is later on that sadly never comes. It’s just a hodgepodge of ideas that were done so much better in other films. It’s The Game without an intrigue or genuine tension, The Adjustment Bureau with much weaker science fiction elements, and Face/Off with absolutely none of the charm or fun (among countless other films that it falls short of). Now admittedly the first act of this movie is pretty good, what with Ben Kingsley being his usually amazing self as a ruthless business man who’s at least somewhat contemplative now that he knows he’s going to die. He’s no saint, in fact the meeting he has with his daughter proves that he wasn’t and still isn’t a great guy, but being faced with his own mortality has made him realize his own vulnerability in a way that makes him at least somewhat sympathetic. The shedding procedure and post care are at least halfway interesting, what with the amount of physical therapy needed to adjust Damion to the new body (now being played by Ryan Reynolds), and the various rules in place so that the company can remain secret while giving this guy a new chance at life.
It’s all good stuff, but it’s ultimately for naught because what’s good about this first part of the movie is how it’s setting up the science fiction elements for the actual story to ground itself in. Unfortunately, things go south IMMEDIATLEY once he leaves the lab and starts his new life. For the time being, he’s to live in New Orleans (because films are cheaper to make there) as he adjusts to his new body and new life as well as dealing with the side effects that are suppressed by magic red pills. For about twenty minutes, the film just stops and gives us a travelogue of New Orleans as we get scenes of him banging a bunch of ladies that are intercut with clips of bands playing in the streets.
Scenes like this are supposed to be the prelude to the fall, and they work in movies like the Fly (when Seth Brundle becomes super strong immediately after the procedure) where we get to learn more about the character and get to see him accomplish things he’s never been able to before. Some sort of goal they always had but were too weak or afraid to do so before the sci-fi element was introduced into their lives. The problem is that this movie half-asses these scenes because all we get is basically a montage of him banging hot chicks and finally being able to eat peanut butter. I think another one of the reasons it doesn’t work here is that we are following someone who already got pretty much anything they’ve ever wanted out of life and his new goals are just kind of shallow. It’s just another indication that this movie was basically written from a template without any real thought into what any of this means and was just grabbing elements from far better films. So the movie stumbles on making this a character driven piece what with his new lease on life being underwhelming. It can still succeed as a thrilling mystery as he discovers the dark secrets of the company who gave him the new body, right? Sadly no. As stated earlier, everything in this movie can be seen from a mile away, and the extremely obvious twists are played with such straight-faced sincerity that it’s almost laughable that they couldn’t figure this stuff out any sooner. It takes way too long for Damion to realize the first major plot twist (they spoil it in the trailer) which is that the body he’s inhabiting was NOT grown from a lab but was someone else’s, and the movie just gets more predictable and boring from there. I’m only going to give two real spoilers in this and one of them is the circumstances that led Mark (the person who Damion is embodying) into being a part of this in the first place. His daughter was dying from some disease and he had no money to pay for it. The company reached out to him (either that or he found them) and offered him a chance to save his daughter in exchange for his own body and life. Once this is revealed, I thought the movie MIGHT be heading into an interesting direction, but it is completely undercut by how the film chooses to frame this and how the company behaves AFTER Damion finds out the truth. While you could argue that this is a highly unethical and immoral practice for a company to do, it’s at least within the realm of plausibility that a company would behave this way. Consider how many stories you hear about a company doing something truly heinous that they justify through minimization and bureaucratic mumbo jumbo. A poor person being forced into a financial corner and giving up what little he has of value to some rich people for a couple bucks? That’s practically the fracking industry in a nutshell (oh! EDGY!!!). What I CAN’T buy is when this company who performs medical operations brings guns into the scenario.
When the company turns into an ethically questionable group of doctors into a paramilitary outfit is when the movie goes from MAYBE being a decent sci-fi film into a dumb as hell Borne clone. Really, the only other time this movie tries to have a brain in its head (here’s that other spoiler!) is when Damion learns that Mark can come back IF he stops taking the red pills, ensuring his own drift into oblivion as the host’s real memories and personality take over. I actually liked that Damion was selfish enough to flat out refuse to let himself die to save Mark because it was one of the few indications that the flawed man we saw earlier was really still kicking around in there, but this is only a small part of the film and it ends up going exactly where you think it will go. There’s nothing interesting past the first half hour, no exciting action scenes to make the shift to a shoot-em-up thriller justifiable, and almost no characters to actually care about. Once again, Ryan Reynolds has been brought into a film that CALLS for someone like Ryan Reynolds to be in there to lighten things up, but then forces him to read dialogue and perform scenes where he has to be ultra-serious and stoic. No one else gives anything resembling a nuanced performance except for Ben Kingsley at the beginning and maybe the villain, played here by Matthew Goode who’s basically playing Ozymandias again only with a different accent. I especially want to point out that the kid in this film (played by Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen) is one of the worst written parts I’ve seen for a child actor in a long time. She’s a motivational tool used by the movie to generate sympathy and coos from the audience and is pushed to the side whenever it is most convenient. She never acts like a real kid in a dangerous situation (she doesn’t cry once despite being chased by bad guys) and her dialogue is the kind that is written by people whose only experience with children is staring at Hummel figurines.
I watched this movie feeling like I was about to slip into a coma at any minute, just WAITING for it to at least elicit an emotion out of me in some way other than boredom for what’s going on onscreen and contempt for the writers for thinking that something this generic was good enough. As the credits finally began to roll, I actually did have a genuine emotional reaction. A true shock to my system that woke me up for a brief moment and marvel at what I had just seen on the screen.
Directed by Tarsem Singh
I honestly had no idea who had directed this before going in and thought it was some guy who did shit like Man on a Ledge or Homefront. Instead, one of the most unique visionary directors of our time made something THIS boring. Say what you will about Tarsem Singh (most of it will probably be bad) but he never makes a BORING film. Maybe the stories aren’t that great but the guy’s sense of visual composition and cinematography are almost unmatched, and to see a movie that’s THIS static and boringly (if admittedly competently) shot is a greater plot twist than any that were in the film itself. Hell, as far as I can tell the only thing that jumped out visually was Ben Kingsley’s tacky ass apartment at the beginning of the movie which in retrospect looks EXACTLY like something Tarsem Singh would design.
I’m honestly not sure what attracted him to something like this. It’s not like Mirror Mirror or Immortals were box office flops (they did pretty well overseas), but maybe they didn’t hit hard enough for him to have any clout with the big studios and had to do this film to finance whatever he wanted next. I honestly doubt that Self/less is going to do anywhere near as well as those two films (especially since it’s up against Minions) but if this is what it takes to get another REAL Tarsem Singh movie made, then so be it. If this really was a serious project for the guy though, that has me a bit worried about where he feels his career is at and what he needs to do to be considered a great director. There’s no question the guy has a reputation for preferring style over substance and maybe this was intended to be a challenge for him to try to make a film that was more grounded that what he’s done in the past. If that’s the case, then we almost certainly have proof that this guy can’t handle a film under those kinds of restraints because he gave up his style for this movie and gain absolutely no substance for doing so.
I really did not enjoy this film. I don’t think it’s as bad as say Terminator Genysis, but then it also doesn’t have any of those fun moments that made that movie at least watchable at points and possibly worth a second viewing down the road. This movie will not be remembered as a notorious failure but will instead be forgotten as a ho-hum (at its best moments) quickie flick made by people who should be doing better things. I’m not sure which fate is worse.
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