Self/less

August 1, 2015
Ryan Reynolds in 'Self/less' (2015)
Ryan Reynolds in 'Self/less' (2015)

Tarsem Singh’s Self/less is another movie that strives for profundity but has no qualms about including the special effects, car chases and combat scenes discerning viewers seem to expect nowadays. Even allowing for these concessions to public taste the film has copped a hiding in the United States. It may have something to do with the title. A slash may seem cool in an academic journal but it’s a turn-off for a would-be popular movie, especially when it often seems to be written in meaningless capitals.

As for the film itself, well it’s not a masterpiece but neither is it a disaster. When one considers the cynical, big-budget dross served up in high profile movies such as Jurassic World and Terminator Genisys, one has to give Self/less credit for a few intriguing ideas. It may not actually be bad enough. Those few shreds of intellectual respectability suggest opportunities lost alongside films with wall-to-wall bad dialogue and mindless violence. Besides, when your previous film was Mirror, Mirror (2012), the only way is up.

Self/less replays that old story of the rich man whose wealth and power can’t save him from death’s clutches. Damian Hale, played by a smarmy Ben Kingsley, is “the man who built New York”, but he is dying of cancer. His ruthless attitude has ruined his relationship with his only daughter, Claire (Michelle Dockery, from Downton Abbey), who has gone off and joined a group of environmentalists. Worst of all, his untold riches have been unable to cure the excruciating bad taste that disfigures his palatial Manhattan apartment.

Damian’s only hope lies with a mysterious procedure called “shedding” developed by the equally mysterious Phoenix Biogenic Corporation, fronted by a scientist-come-spin doctor, named Albright (Matthew Goode).

It’s so top secret that Damian’s death has to be elaborately staged before his mind can be transferred to the new, young body that has been prepared.

A quick session with the brain-transfer machine and Damian is reborn as Ryan Reynolds. He regains his mobility and begins living it up in New Orleans under an assumed identity. Unfortunately he keeps having strange flashbacks to a wife and child, and various bits of military mayhem in Iraq. Soon Damian begins to wonder whether his new body was freshly grown in the laboratory, or if it once belonged to someone else.

Although we have seen nothing in the old Damian to suggest he would be worried about using some social inferior’s body to prolong his own existence, this is precisely what happens. Driven by his awakening conscience Damian stops taking the tablets and goes in search of the host body’s family. When he finds wife and daughter, the Phoenix Corporation gets extremely violent. At this point the film’s intellectual conceits give way to an orgy of predictable cinematic carnage, with much emphasis on flame throwers.

Fortuitously for Damian, who was a pampered executive in his previous life, his host body belonged to a guy called Mark, who was a crack soldier. This means he automatically understands how to use weapons, drive like a Formula One racer, and beat off thugs with his bare hands. There must be many CEOs who would envy these useful skills.

As Damian’s medication wears off, Mark’s mind begins to reassert its claims. The ethical dilemma now is whether the newly scrupulous plutocrat has the right to colonise another man’s life. Such questions of conscience never trouble Dr. Albright, who more closely resembles a B-movie mad scientist as the story progresses. There will, of course, be a final dramatic confrontation between the doctor and his creation, and a postscript.

The film that presumably inspired Self/less, was John Frankenheimer’s Seconds (1966), starring Rock Hudson as the new body taken on by a dying wealthy banker. The main differences are that Self/less is much more violent, and in colour. Any further comparisons would only be an embarrassment to Tarsem Singh.

Ultimately the most cliched aspect of Self/less is that it falls into that Hollywood habit of treating every scientific advance as a portal through which consummate evil enters the world. Scientists must get tired of going to the movies and finding themselves portrayed as super villains who will exterminate any number of plebs in order to prove their hypothesis, and possibly rule the world. Who cares about mere humans when the future of Science is at stake! It might be time for the men in lab coats to consider a class action.

Self/less
Directed by Tarsem Singh
Written by David & Àlex Pastor
Starring Ryan Reynolds, Natalie Martinez, Matthew Goode, Ben Kingsley, Derek Luke, Victor Garber, Michelle Dockery
USA, rated MA 15+, 117 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 1st August, 2015.