(USA, 118 min.)
Dir. Tarsem Singh, Writ. David Pastor, Alex Pastor
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Natalie Martinez, Matthew Goode, Ben Kingsley, Victor Garber, Michelle Dockery
Canada’s Ryan Reynolds faces the future in Self/Less! This sci-fi/thriller, which is much better than reviews during its theatrical release suggest, is an ambitious flick that mixes high-concept innovation with fast-paced escapism. It’s smart, entertaining, and just ridiculous enough to be compulsively watchable.
Reynolds stars as Damian, or, he stars as Damian in Adam’s body. The older Damian, the physical one, first comes in the form of Ben Kingsley. The elder Damian is a wealthy phlegmatic man, a condo tycoon dying of cancer who dreams of immortality. His unshakable sense of power (and entitlement) leads him to investigate a business card and the concept of “shedding,” which introduces him to Dr. Albright (Matthew Goode) and one of those proposals that more than meets the adage, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” Shedding, in this case, is the ballsy procedure that transplants the mind of a living person into the body of a dead one—like a kidney transplant in reverse but much more complicated.
Damian goes for the deal and opts to cheat death. Dr. Albright slides him through the shedder, a whirly CAT-scan thing that looks ominously dangerous. And poof! Damian wakes up with a full head of hair and way better pecs. Like a snake, he’s shed his skin and regenerated.
In Reynolds’ body, Damian enjoys the riches of youth. He jogs. He parties. He bangs chick after chick in a lengthy montage of bedrooms and perky breasts. Shedding offers fountain of youth that basically lets any wheezing and ill person leave the hospital for a bacchanal.
Shedding, appropriately enough, is a snaky business. The evils of the procedure reveal themselves soon enough as fragments of unfamiliar(ish) memories invade Damian’s mind. These images are dreamy and surreal at first—the few signature calling cards in Self/Less that say one is watching a Tarsem Singh film—and they become more real and urgent the more they pop up. Damian, plagued by déjà vu and queasiness, returns to Dr. Albright for a diagnosis. These memories are elements of the man behind Damian’s new body trying to come through and live. The side effect of shedding is murder.
Killing off Ben Kingsley for Ryan Reynolds makes a surprisingly fair trade (and feels less incongruous than the unexpectedly strong pairing of Reynolds with Dame Helen Mirren in Woman in Gold). Self/Less demands that the actors parallel their actions and mannerisms to bring one character to life in another man’s body. It’s effective, even if Damian looks awkward—purposely so—when he delivers stealthy military-grade kicks and punches.
Self/Less stumbles somewhat as it switches gears from the conceptual to the kinetic as Damian becomes a man on the run as he investigates the life left behind by Adam, the man whom he thought “donated” his body to the cause. A few loony set pieces introduce some wild action and unexpected shoot-outs. Echoes of Looper abound as Damian finds himself at the country home of his body protecting the wife and family of his carrier. The speculative element of Self/Less fades in and out of the film as the action spirit overrides the sci-fi—a bit like the way that Adam slips through Damian’s mind with schizophrenic power—but it returns strongly as writers David Pastor and Alex Pastor turn the “what if” question back on Damian and the film asks if a person can take one life to save another. The film remains wildly entertaining even as the intelligence level gradually declines and then sharply drops in its riotous finale. Reynolds’ performance lends it enough credibility as Damian and the doctor have the silliest operating room scene since The Rock ripped off his body cast in Furious 7. Just go with it.
The first half of the film offers stronger material, though, as Singh delivers a science-fiction premise that feels perfectly, normally real. The concept of shedding sounds perfectly plausible and the evenness with which Self/Less presents it leaves one wondering not so much if it could happen, but rather when such a procedure will be realized. Nothing in the film looks like the future, aside from the slickly editing action and the flashy lab that only looks a few years ahead of today. Self/Less is a sci-fi film of the present, and the sense of possibility is immensely intriguing.
A/V: Self/Less’s 1080p HD transfer is clean and consistent, but the True HD audio is more impressive. The crisp sound effects and layered audio allow film buffs to enjoy Self/Less at a high volume without rattling the bass and speakers too much.
The bonus features: Bonus features on Self/Less leave a little to be desired. Commentary by director Tarsem Singh and the usual behind-the-scenes bonus highlight approaches to the characters, setting, and aesthetics. (The chat on the CAT-scan production design is interesting.) The disc includes a featurette on shedding, which one wishes were a fuller item. The featurette clocks in at under three minutes and offers sound bites from Reynolds and screenwriters David Pastor and Alex Pastor, as well as a few words from neuroscientists who explain the potential and theory behind the premise. It’s interesting to hear the experts suggest that the concept isn’t as farfetched as one might think it to be, so there’s room to expand upon the theories behind it and to explore the deeper questions that add a dark side to the film.
Rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★★)
Self/Less is now available on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital platforms from VVS Films.