Sci-fi thriller ‘Self/Less’ doesn’t live up to director Tarsem Singh’s potential
By any name and any copyright, Self/Less is John Frankenheimer’s 1966 film, Seconds, a second time around. It’s another disappointment from Tarsem Singh that is, once again, likely not his fault. At a comic convention a few years back Singh told the audience that his Immortals was a case of creative differences: his producers wanted Zack Snyder and Singh had wanted Caravaggio. Has something like this happened again? Did Singh want Kubrick, and did the producers want an action movie?
Ben Kingsley is Damian, a dying real-estate tycoon informed of the existence of the Phoenix Corporation. For a mere $250 million, it saves the personalities of great men whose minds outwear their bodies—“Einstein, Edison, Steve Jobs” (Apple has product placement galore in this film). Phoenix has secretly pioneered the new tech of “Shedding”—taking personalities and inserting them into new bodies. Damian dies, and in his new form (as Ryan Reynolds) he carries out a life of pleasurable dissipation.
Damian must turn up regularly to have a prescription refilled by the silky physician (Matthew Goode) who oversaw the personality transplant in his New Orleans clinic. If Damian doesn’t take the pills, he has flashbacks and disturbing dreams. These convince Damian that this body came with a ghost in the machine. Phoenix’s gun-wielding employees do their mortal best to ensure the newly-transplanted tycoon doesn’t find out about his host-body’s past.
Self/Less is the most straightforward, present-day set movie Singh has made, with no touch of fantasy other than the sci-fi “shedding” machinery (even this looks plausible: it’s not much bigger than an MRI). Singh has a Nicholas Roeg-worthy taste for contemplating the various angles of a scene, for zeroing in on steel and chrome and glass. The gilded Manhattan penthouse the old Damian inhabits looks appropriately decadent—half-way to Sadaam’s golden fortress in The Devil’s Double. Panning the camera aboard a truck from on top of a Louisiana levee, he establishes the isolation of a lone rural house that comes under siege from ruthless men. (It’s the preamble to an authentically tough shootout.) While it’s not an insanely expensive movie, Self/Less changes its scenery often—you feel like you’ve seen two sides of the world.
It’s also blessed with authentic work by Natalie Martinez as Madeleine, the woman once married to the original owner of Damian’s new body. Martinez’s reaction to the first sight of her presumed dead husband exemplifies what’s meant by the expression “the actor nailing that take.” Her reaction is as rapid as a gunshot.
Reynolds’ blank Canadian likability is best in the early scenes—he’s like a film noir sap and he begins to be treated like one. Self/Less’ best line is from a Phoenix company enforcer: “I know you’re disappointed. You thought you bought a new car and it turns out to have a few miles on it.” But the script by Alex and David Pastor (the 2009 Carriers) peters out after the second act—when it frames the problem and identifies the villains, all that’s left is to carry out the too easy solutions.
Many critics have a hobby of making excuses for M. Night Shymalan—this space prefers to save its chips for Singh. Singh’s work in Immortals (2011) and Mirror, Mirror (2012) have been real retina candy, with costumes by the late Japanese designer Eiko Ishioka.
It’s been almost ten years since Singh’s The Fall (2006), the film that suggests this director may someday flabbergast the world. The Fall was about a crippled and suicidal inmate (Lee Pace)—a stuntman at the dawn of Hollywood cinema in 1916—recuperating at a hospital as he spins a story for an injured child (Cantinca Utaru). It was like a Terry Gilliam film, concerned with the primacy of fantasy over reality—it’s as if Joan Didion’s “We tell each other stories in order to live,” were paraphrased to “We tell each other stories to keep from going mad.”
Singh’s baroque impulses may quarrel with the ability to do all the things a commercial movie is supposed to do. But in Self/Less, this movie with no good reason to be made, you certainly don’t see a dead talent, or one that’s giving up.
SELF/LESS PG-13; 116 Min. PHOTO: In ‘Self/Less,’ Damian, played first by Ben Kingsley, trades his old body for a new, younger one, played by Ryan Reynolds. But at what cost?