Self/Less (2015)

Directed by Tarsem Singh

Contains spoilers.

Science fiction, it's sad to say, is a genre of lessening splendor. The concepts that, decades ago, were so imaginative and expansive are currently still being used and expounded on as if they're new. That doesn't diminish what they are, but it certainly makes it hard to be a fan of the genre when some of the best ideas were thought up decades ago and are better than the 'original' ideas that some folks are coming up with today. But what's even worse is when there's a good idea, that goes nowhere, in the hands of incompetents.

Self/Less is just such a science fiction story with promising ideas. Ben Kingsley plays Damian Hale, a famed architect and businessmen, ruthless in his dealings. Unfortunately, he's only reached his fame and vast fortune as the result of a lengthy career which hasn't allowed him much happiness, peace of mind, or time off. Now, in old age, he has advanced cancer that will soon kill him. He finds out about a new procedure, called shedding, that could give him some more time, and pursues it. It turns out that the extra time is a result of transferring his consciousness to a younger and healthier body, an "empty vessel." His new body, played by Ryan Reynolds, is supposedly perfect and lab-grown, and he enjoys the youth immensely. Unfortunately, when he forgets to take one of his prescribed pills at the right time he sees some visions. The visions get worse and Damian begins to unravel the secrets behind shedding and behind his new body, secrets that are quite a bit more devious and deadly than he anticipated.

Shedding is displayed as a fancy new technology that actually is very secretive, as opposed to the forefront of technology. That seems to be an increasingly popular feature in sci-fi: this amazing, revolutionary technology could change the world and how we view society and religion, but actually it should be a shady enterprise that's hidden away. The machine used to 'shed' is like a twin MRI, but with exposed, spinny things that spin around and do... something... Also, the shedder, like an MRI, is hugely magnetic, which proves to be it's undoing later in the film.

Kingsley, in choosing to use this service, displays Damian's fear of dying and his ego, despite holding some regrets about his lackluster parenting. Ultimately, while undergoing the shedding process we see his absolute fear of dying, almost like no one explained the shedding process in depth. After this initial shedding, the story turns more towards dramatic fiction. The science aspect becomes almost nonexistent after the first 20 minutes or so, and we deal more with drugs, hallucinations, memories, physiological changes, etc.

It turns out that Damian's new body wasn't grown in a lab, because there's no way that would happen in a science fiction film about transferring human consciousness, but is actually the body of a man named Mark. As the story progresses, Mark's memories come to the surface with increasing strength, and Damian starts to get paranoid, feeling like Albright's hiding something from him. He decides to do some research and look into the visions he's having. Needing medication to balance the body's brain with a new consciousness, the story moves towards suspense, or maybe mystery.

Damian travels in search of some answers, looking for a woman from his visions. We learn from the visions and some photos that Damian finds that Mark used to be in the armed forces, which comes in handy as Albright has sent some thugs to silence the woman, named Madeline, and convince Damian to leave the research alone. Damian doesn't like it, so here's where the story tries to get into action territory. Mark's vague memories of being in the military, and probably some muscle memory sort of hocus pocus, fuel Damian's response when confronting the thugs. He destroys one of the thugs in a flurry of blows, forcing his head through a toilet bowl. He takes the thug's gun and freezes in contemplation. The other thugs get in position to shit him down, but one of them tries to appeal to Damian's better nature. They fight again and Damian fights back, shooting up the thugs with Mark's military training and memories, featuring the typical mechanic of henchmen-have-bad-aim and heroes-never-miss. They manage to get away, pick up Madeline's daughter, and get to one of Damian's friends.

Now the story turns on the suspense and tries to force some twists and mystery. Then Singh forces a mediocre car chase with some shooting that culminates in a crappy 3-car crash of Hollywood proportions and high-flying flips. Albright reveals himself as more or a less a supervillain in the end, with some more crappy fighting and an anti-climactic ending.

Throughout the movie it seems like Singh can't keep a particular atmosphere, or like he can't decide which genre the material would best fit. The premise of 'shedding' (which is a ridiculous name that tries to make it seem like an evolutionary trait instead of a scientific operation) is an interesting concept, and the resulting 'side effects' could've been the basis for an interesting movie. The material itself could've been worked into any genre imaginable; it could've been a purely science fiction film about the shedding business and maybe corporate espionage; it could've been a revenge flick with some homemade shedding equipment; it could've been a psychological thriller about the side effects; it could've been a science fiction romance. Literally any direction that Singh wanted to go in, he could have, but he tried to have all of them instead, failing at every single one.

At almost every scene change, the mood shifts. One scene is about the action, another tries to be heartfelt and create empathy with the characters, then there's suspense. But none of the moods that Singh creates ever go far enough. He stops short of reaching a definite atmosphere, as if he wants this movie to appeal to everyone; the action fans; the romantics; the science fiction nerds; the suspense fans. Instead, he creates a mish mash of genres with a character that has no idea who he is. He's so fucking confused throughout the movie that even his story arc is confused. Does he redeem himself? Was he even Damian at all? Why the fuck did they call it shedding? I mean really, one of the worst lines was trying to force some information by having Kingsley say, "Have you heard of shedding?" without any kind of lead up.  In no way is that natural dialogue and it's still annoying me. I can't blame Reynolds, he's an endearing actor that demands sympathy through his body language and was cast as a character who's meant to be a ruthless business magnate thrust into an ex-marine's body that carries memories of a broken-hearted family. And his story arc is summed up with a couple sentences and a sad face at the finale.

If ever there's a remake then I'll be looking forward to it, preferably with a more focused and accomplished director who can give the material an actual direction. Until then, this dull story that hides beneath a shiny idea just isn't enough.

TL;DR: Self/Less could have been a capable science fiction thriller. Unfortunately, it gets bogged down by its relentless efforts at trying to be heartfelt but utterly failing. It's a sci-fi film without much science fiction, a thriller without much suspense, a drama without much drama, and an action film without much action. In every way, it lacks. But maybe Ryan Reynolds will be endearing enough with his almost chronically middle-raised eyebrows to make the two, arduous hours worthwhile.

  • Acting – 12 / 20
  • Story – 6 / 20
  • Cinematography – 6 / 20
  • Soundtrack – 4 / 10
  • Entertainment Factor – 6 / 10
  • Sci-Fi/Thriller – 7 / 10
  • Other – 5 / 10

Grade F = 46 / 100