Tarsem has established himself among cinephiles as one of the premier visionary cinematic artists of our day, with thin but serviceable plots used to introduce fantastic visuals in The Cell, The Fall, Immortals, and Mirror Mirror. But his fifth feature, Self/less, changed up the formula. With the Catalonian brothers David and Àlex Pastor providing the script, Tarsem tries for more depth in his story while dialing back his imaginative imagery. The result is decidedly mixed.
We start with Damian (Ben Kingsley), a wealthy New York businessman. His apartment, decorated in gold leaf, is the closest we’ll get to a classic Tarsem set. He’s also dying, but he’s heard of a procedure called “shedding” available to those as obscenely rich as he is. Basically, his consciousness can be transferred into a younger, healthy body and he can go on living in it.
The catch, though, is that the bodies have to come from somewhere. Albright (Matthew Goode), the representative who makes the arrangements for him, assures Damian that they’re grown specially for this purpose, but we soon find out that his new body (Ryan Reynolds) was actually a real person. He volunteered his life to cover the medical bills for his daughter, Anna (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen), leaving behind her and his wife, Madeline (Natalie Martinez).
The new body’s memories start leaking through soon after the procedure, but Albright gives Damian a course of “anti-rejection” medication to suppress them. At first life is good; Damian adopts a new name, moves into a luxurious house at the eastern edge of the French Quarter, and makes a new friend in Anton (Derek Luke), who sets him up with both the local nightlife and the local ladies. But when he eventually misses a dose, Damian becomes obsessed with the memories that come welling up, and he goes in search of Madeline and Anna to find out what’s going on. Of course, Albright and his organization want to prevent that discovery at all costs.
We don’t really get all that much of Kingsley, which is kind of a shame. On the other hand, at least Tarsem doesn’t make the same mistake as we saw in Woman in Gold, asking Reynolds to go head-to-head with an actor that far out of his league. All we really need from Reynolds here is Generic and Likable Action Hero, and he’s pretty good at that.
As a mystery, the story does fall somewhat short. The truth about Damian’s new body is right there in all the promotional material, and it comes very early on. The side twists we get along the way are capably executed, but ultimately don’t impact the core plot very much. It does raise some interesting questions about medical ethics, especially the possibility of richer patients using their money to buy outcomes at the direct expense of poorer patients, but this idea is never explored in any real depth.
But the real disappointment is the lack of those fantastic scenes Tarsem has become known for. Even when the story faltered, we could count on him to provide jaw-dropping vistas and visionary art design, but not here. His eye is still present, and the design of the memory effect is as inventive and, ultimately, as clever as we could hope for, but he’s clearly trying to play a more mainstream game than he really excels at.
The story is an improvement on Tarsem’s usual fare, but only modestly, and not enough to justify the lack of his usual visual extravagance. Without that as a draw, Self/less can only be passable, but never truly great.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.