Self/less is the kind of film that can be enjoyed in the right circumstances. Unfortunately, for the production company hoping for some Ryan Reynolds magic this weekend, those circumstances are not in a packed movie theater, paying for overpriced tickets and concessions. But you know what? Curled up on the couch on a lazy Sunday, with entirely too many commercial breaks, this sci-fi thriller might be on to something.
Self/less just doesn’t set its sights very high. It opens with a compelling premise — that a new technology could transfer a dying man’s mind into a young body, allowing them to live on. It’s the kind of thing you’d expect in a Twilight Zone episode, complete with unexpected consequences. But where Twilight Zone may delve into such a premise in a multi-faceted way, asking far-reaching questions of societal impact, Self/less barely goes beyond the ideas presented in its trailers.
At the outset we are introduced to Damian (Ben Kingsley), an uber-rich older man, desperately trying to cling to his lavish lifestyle as cancer takes over his body. He learns of a new and secretive technology, called shedding, that would allow him to transfer his consciousness to a new body, as long as he’s willing to let his old life go. He decides to go for it, with his consciousness transferred into a young body, played by Ryan Reynolds.
Quick aside: this is the last we see of Ben Kingsley in the film, and it’s for the best. While it may have added some depth to plot to see his old self struggling with the new body, Kingsley’s performance is distracting and uneven. If he received any direction for his performance, I have to imagine it was in the form of “Whose Line is it Anyway?”-style callouts from a live studio audience. He can never nail down whether he’s an Italian mobster or a British sophisticate. Later on, Ryan Reynolds and an eight-year-old spend a few minutes splashing around in a pool and manage to be far more entertaining.
Anyway, the plot moves along as anyone who saw the trailer would expect. Damian starts to see visions of a past that isn’t his, and decides to look for answers. Unfortunately for him, the company that created shedding doesn’t want its secret sauce to go public, and his hunt for the truth becomes a cat and mouse game to avoid a deadly cover-up.
The back-and-forth as Damian goes Jason Bourne on his pursuers is reasonably entertaining, but it also feels lazy in a film that opens with a “big idea” premise. Sure, there’s the grunt who continually transfers his consciousness into new bodies when the previous ones are broken by Damian, but this isn’t given any of the Terminator-esque implications you’d expect. Self/less shows us a few neat ideas, says, “That’s kinda cool, right?” and then pisses off in a series of car chases and gunfights for the duration.
Despite the sci-fi premise at the heart of Self/less, it manages to culminate in a by-the-numbers thriller. That said, I didn’t hate it, and I wasn’t bored by the lack of deep questions, simply let-down by the fact that it never tried. But hey, if you’re flipping through the channels in a year and it’s on, maybe give it a shot.