The two reviews I read of Self/less called it mediocre, but so far I’m a Tarsem Singh completest, so I wasn’t going to let that stop me. All four of his previous films have wonderful visual style, and The Fall (2006) is one of my favorite films of recent years. I love the altogether campier Mirror Mirror (2012) too, while The Cell (2000) and Immortals (2011) are too grim for me, despite their undeniable visual splendors.
Self/less looks a lot different than those previous films. Other than the opulence of the Manhattan tower condo where we initially find the protagonist (at that point played by Ben Kingsley) living, the rest of the production design is fairly spare and sleek and lacking in the fanciful. The story, too, is less fanciful, although it’s still a work of fantasy, in the science fiction mode. Kingsley plays a billionaire named Damian who is dying from cancer. He has learned of a new technology, called shedding, that allows a person’s identity to be transferred to a new body and thereby prolongs life. The secretive company that owns the technology claims the new body is a clone, but it soon becomes apparent that Damian’s new body (played by Ryan Reynolds) may have a history of its own.
So Tarsem has abandoned his stylized look for this film, and the film itself is a fairly conventional science fiction thriller. Maybe he was trying to prove that he could do something more mundane than what he’s become known for. It seems to me that he’s done a good enough job of it. While I would agree that this is a pretty average movie, it’s well made as such. It moves along effortlessly, creates characters you can identify with, builds dramatic tension, and handles its action scenes well. (Tarsem proved he could handle action scenes in Immortals, but this film, while occasionally brutal, is thankfully less gory.) Instead of using set and costume design to communicate the story, Tarsem uses old-fashioned montage. There’s a lovely sequence of Damian throwing a series of women into bed that expresses the joys of his new body, and later there’s a sequence in which he teaches a young girl how to swim that conveys the establishment of a connection between the two characters in a brief flow of images and dialogue.
Again, on a plot and character level this isn’t anything more demanding than, say, one of EuropaCorp’s thrillers. I’d certainly agree that it’s the least interesting of Tarsem’s movies so far, but I found it perfectly agreeable for what it was. The biggest weakness, to my mind, was that the conversion of Damian’s character was unconvincing — both in terms of the feeling that Ryan Reynolds is playing the same character that Ben Kingsley was, and in terms of the changes in the character’s motivation. It reminded me at times of the film Limitless, but it doesn’t have the satirical edge or narrative ebullience that made that one so effective. Still, it works through its premise with some able twists and turns, never tarrying too long or trying to be more than a straightforward action melodrama with a happy ending.