There’s a sequence halfway through Self/Less where the girl learns the hero’s terrible secret, and demands an immediate explanation.
They’re driving on a highway, and in your average thriller you’d get a scene where the hero pulls the car over and an intense conversation ensues; the camera would cut between the pair as the hero explains what we already know, and the girl reacts how we expect.
The director of Self/Less, Tarsem Singh, knows this.
In his film, the hero pulls into a parking lot, drives past a clothes donation bin, pulls around an abandoned value store, and parks the car by a huge graffiti mural. The protagonists leave the car to have their discussion, but we never hear what they say: the camera stays with the young girl in the back seat, who struggles to free herself from a seat belt, and then leaves the car to play with one of those coin-operated ponies.
It’s a small detail, but it exemplifies the gap between the vision of the screenplay and the director.
Self/Less, as written by Spanish filmmakers David and Àlex Pastor (who previously made the decent sci-fi/horror flick Carriers), is a pretty worthless update of John Frankenheimer’s Seconds: it stuffs that film’s thought-provoking premise into a generic B-movie plot that has our highly trained hero protecting a girl from gun-wielding baddies for most of the running time.
The premise is simple: a company has invented the technology to move consciousness from one body to another, and those who can afford it (e.g., the wealthiest elite) can “shed” their old selves for younger, hunkier Rock Hudson types.
In this version of the story, Ben Kingsley plays Damian Hayes, a New York City business tycoon dying of cancer. He initially dismisses the sci-fi body-switching technology of Albright (Matthew Goode) as hokum, but soon accepts it as his only chance at survival.
Next thing you know, Damian wakes up as Ryan Reynolds, and must undergo some physical therapy to adjust to his new body. Pretty soon he’s living the good life in New Orleans, making new friends, going out partying and taking home a new girl every night (would Kingley’s character really be clubbing, we wonder, just because he looks like Reynolds?)
There’s a great opportunity here for Reynolds to show some acting chops a la Cage and Travolta in Face/Off by doing his best Kingsley impression. But he does nothing; outside of a few character traits written into the screenplay, Reynolds makes no effort to convey it’s really Kingsley under his skin.
Damian begins to have horrible hallucinations if he doesn’t take his daily red pill, and soon he begins to investigate what he recognizes as memories. This prompts an investigation, and by the time he hooks up with Madeline (Natalie Martinez) and her young daughter (Anna Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen) with Albright’s goons on their tail, we know where this thing is going.
It’s illogical and contrived, and Self/Less makes little effort to explore the science behind its fiction. But there are three terrific action sequences that take their time and unfold with an intense precision: the first a fiery shootout at a rural farmhouse, the second a chase scene on dark night roads, and third in – where else? – an abandoned warehouse used to store decaying Mardi Gras floats.
Self/Less was torn to shreds by critics, but I just don’t get it: it’s the second perfectly serviceable action movie (after The Gunman) to be ripped apart this year. Not all may like it – and the script, certainly, leaves you wanting – but there’s an undeniable craft to the direction that is absent from the usual blockbuster action movie.
And then there’s this: the script may be garbage, but the director brings something special to the proceedings, a stark, often beautiful commentary on US lifestyle. As we travel from New York to New Orleans to St. Louis, every frame of the film seems to be filled with imagery that reflects its time and place.
The movie looks gorgeous, with crisp widescreen photography from Brendan Galvin that captures all the designer clothing and accessories and automobiles that linger on the screen for seconds longer than they ought to. I rarely notice this kind of thing, but it’s pervasive here.
In the hands of anyone else, Self/Less would be worthless. But I was surprised by the depth and care that director Singh brought to the film: you can ignore the story and only watch the images on the screen, and come away from the film with a better portrait of contemporary US lifestyle than any other American movie released this year.
After Mirror Mirror and Immortals, it’s his best work since the incredible The Fall.