Tarsem Singh has a rollercoaster of a track record, at least with me. He has made one film that I really loved called The Fall, one that I really didn’t called Mirror Mirror, one that I liked even less called Immortals, and one that I can’t even describe called The Cell. Now he tries his hand on sci-fi, giving us a premise that involves the transfer of consciousness, which would intrigue me if I didn’t instantly think “Face/off meets Chappie” (note that even the title is stylized similarly to that of Face/off).
The film features Ben Kingsley, doing the same accent he used in Lucky Number Slevin, as a sick and dying billionaire named Damian Hale. He has recently been looking into a brand of medical treatment called shedding, where the “aged and infirm can shed their prisons”, as its creator puts it in a Wikipedia video. Basically, it allows the sick to transfer their minds into healthier bodies. But a leading shedding professor named Albright (Matthew Goode), who summons Hale via mysterious note, explains to him that this process needs to be done in secret, and that if Hale truly goes through with the transfer, he will need to abandon his old life entirely and fake his own death. Hale nevertheless agrees, asking remarkably few questions.
Hale becomes Ryan Reynolds and starts reading up on the history of his new “character”, Edward, and does some exercise to get used to his new body, all while having goofy hallucinations that are apparently a side effect to the procedure. He needs to take a few meds, but overall his new life goes pretty great, with lots of friends and women and fun stuff to do. That is until (you knew that phrase was comin’) he forgets to take his meds and the hallucinations get worse, showing him unsettling details of the backstory of the man whose body he inhabits. He also discovers something sinister about Albright and his company, and by extension, what has been done to him. The moral of the story is that modern medicine is bad, apparently.
He also starts missing his daughter Claire (Michelle Dockery), with whom he didn’t have too great a relationship with when he was Ben Kingsley. I am uncertain how I’d react if Ryan Reynolds randomly came up to me and claimed to be one of my dead relatives.
Everything in the beginning of the movie with Ben Kingsley and the introduction of the “shedding” science is the best part of the movie. After that, more precisely when Edward/Hale finds out who he really used to be and seeks out the woman he used to love (Natalie Martinez), the film becomes more concerned with generic action scenes, boring romance, and “bad guy chasing” than with exploring new scientific concepts, and the pros/cons within. A shame.
A pretty funny scene involves Natalie Martinez screaming at Hale/Edward about how frustrated she is not understanding who he actually is at this point. Their daughter walk up and asks what’s wrong and why Martinez is crying and screaming. Martinez responds: “Daddy just forgot my birthday, sweetie.” All things considered, a pretty realistic scene.
There is something peculiar about the editing in this movie. Amidst conversations between the characters, the film will occasionally cut to unrelated shots of stuff going on around them or other points in time altogether, and I don’t see any point in it besides Tarsem wanting to be as artsy as ever. It works better during a few of the montages, where the music is composed by street performers that are quickly cut to at different points during the sequence. I am reminded of one of my own homeland’s greatest films, Sound of Noise (for which I’m currently writing a Movies Magnifique segment), and I don’t know what an homage to that is doing in a sci-fi thriller.
I liked a multitude of things in Self/less, including the production design (Tarsem’s eye for color is still first-rate), the performances of Matthew Goode and Ben Kingsley, and also the music at times. But this is a film with a nifty idea that will leave you wanting more and also questioning too much. Like why would the shedding company not find a more surefire way to make certain that the bodies they use can’t remember the lives they’ve lost? Do they have cases like Edward often? Seems like such a nuisance. Why does Hale’s accent and speech patterns change entirely just because his body is different? Isn’t that largely a mental thing? And on that note, why does he remember the army training and fighting skills of his body’s past inhabitant? And why are the hallucinations so cheesy? And why is Martinez’s character so annoying? The questions go on.
Also, there is a twist involving the inventor of shedding that I will not reveal but I will say that it is one of the most obvious twists I’ve seen in a thriller lately. It was to me, at least. Maybe I’m just really smart?