Tuesday, August 4, 2015

"Self/less" Review: An Intriguing Premise Gives Way To More Standard Action Movie Tropes

Have you ever had one of those theatrical experiences where you are totally into whatever it is that you are watching at the time but shortly after it is over you struggle to find anything really all that positive to say about it? Such is the dilemma of this reviewer who must now differentiate between what was and what is with the new Sci-fi thriller Self/less, a film with a solid cast, a neat idea and proceeds to do absolutely with nothing with either of them. Read the full review after the break.

Review Vital Stats:   
Projector Type: Digital 2D             
Film Rating: PG-13
Film Runtime: 1 hr 57 min
Studio: Focus Features
Release Date: July 10, 2015

Loves: Nothing really
Likes: Ryan Reynolds, Sci-fi action thrillers
Neutral:  Action instead of intrigue
Hates: How the main character turns into an action hero by the end
Like the idea behind Self/less? Check out either Freejack or The 6th Day for a different take.

Self/less starts out with a really compelling idea. If you have struggled your entire life to become one of the most successful and wealthiest businessmen in the world, when your time on this planet comes to an end would you be alright just leaving it all behind or would you prefer to have another chance to actually enjoy all that wealth you spent your entire life accruing? That is the decision faced by Damien (Ben Kingsley), a cut-throat self-made billionaire who has only a scant few months left to live when he is approached by a mysterious organization that specializes in second chances through a new experimental procedure which they call shedding.

How do they do it? As explained by the man behind shedding Professor Albright (Matthew Goode), Damien must actually die, but under controlled circumstances which would allow their team to transfer his mind and conciousness from his deceased body into an empty vessel, a body grown in a lab for the sole purpose of being his new lease on life, for a hefty sum of course. While the new body is healthy, after the transfer it needs time for the mind to recover from the procedure and after a short time Damien, who has now become Edward (Ryan Reynolds), is set free into the world once again with a whole new life ahead of him. If only it were that simple though, as both Edward and us learn quite fast that not everything is as it seems after a startling discovery reveals the truth behind the shedding process.

Saying any more would risk giving away the film's sole secret, something those unfortunate enough to have seen the trailer will already know well in advance. It is important to keep that little twist under wraps as much as possible though because that, some solid acting and a few competently executed action scenes are all that Self/less has going for it. For all its grand ideas and lofty idealism, at its core Self/less is nothing more than a generic action thriller with a really cool underlying high concept. What starts out as a story about the meaning of life and an examination of ones own self worth quickly degrades into a series of shootouts and car chases that amount to little more than some quick cheap thrills.

The few things that do work in Self/less work though work really well, which is just about everything in its first half. When we first meet Damien (played with a disarming coldness by Kingsley) he isn't exactly your typical protagonist. He is a man who his whole life has only ever looked out for himself, even alienating his only daughter (played by Downton Abbey's Michelle Dockery), leaving him to die alone with all his billions in his gigantic golden New York penthouse overlooking Central Park. The film's main task at this point is to take this man who is selfish to the core, even so much as to use his wealth to only prolong his own meaningless life and cheat death and turn him into someone the audience cares about.

This transformation, from self centered to selfless, is quite possibly the film's most successful aspect, as once he transfers into the Ryan Reynolds body and even though we still see signs of old Damien in there, as the film progresses and the mystery surrounding his procedure thickens, we start to see Damien rediscover himself and slowly become the man he should have been all along. We don't see this so much through the writing or the script (which barely gives any of these characters more than one dimension) but through the acting which is the only thing holding the whole film together.

Ryan Reynolds is one of our most underrated dramatic actors working today. It has been said that most of our great dramatic actors have their roots set in comedy. Comedic actors need to be able to tap into a range of emotions to pull off a joke or gag which often includes giving a straight faced serious performance. The problem most comedic actors face however is pulling it off for real without coming off as condensending or sarcastic (a problem Will Ferrell has for instance). But Reynolds has pulled it off numerous times now and while his performance in Self/less isn't exactly full on dramatic and is more action based, those few moments where he needs to sell us on his inner turmoil he does it with ease and most importantly, we buy it.

The other actors aren't quite as skilled as Reynolds when it comes to turning a flat character into a fully three dimensional one, but they aren't bad either. Natalie Martinez does an admirable job playing the confused wife without going too far into annoying territory and Matthew Goode (while seemingly channeling his performance from Watchmen) is cold and calculating as the man who sells you your dreams and then smashes them to pieces. Ben Kingsley on the other hand, who is only in the film for its opening half hour, shows once again why he is so good at what he does because somehow he accomplishes everything Reynolds does with far less time to do it in.

The real problem behind Self/less though is that no matter how good or adequate the acting is, no matter how competently the action scenes are shot and no matter how interesting its premise is, in the end it all feels excessively underwhelming. This is primarily due to the fact that much of what we see here has been done before and done much better. Self/less is an action thriller all things considered and let's face it, there are way better examples of the genre out there with Taken and the entire Bourne franchise as far superior examples. There are even comparisons that can be made to more obscure and arguably better films dealing with the same subject matter as well such as the 80's Emilio Estevez thriller Freejack which dealt with transferring a mind from one body to another as well and the Arnold Schwarzenegger Sci-fi flick The 6th Day which was also about using clones as a way to extend lives.

But even if Self/less hadn't begged comparisons to any of those films it still wouldn't amount to much because despite its big ideas, all it is interested in is creating situations to put our characters in which they must eventually shoot their way out of. That is fine when it happens once or twice but by the fourth or fifth time in under an hour it becomes increasingly dull. Then you add in the ending of the film, which turns Reynolds' character from musing over his life decisions to full blown action hero and everything the film had done right up to that point gets thrown out the window in favor of some pyrotechnics that feel more out of place than exciting.

Is Self/less a bad movie? No, not at all. But watching it is an exercise in frustration as when it starts out so promisingly it has us hooked and ready to explore the possibilities a second life could provide. But then as it slowly reveals itself to be just another action flick one gun shot at a time our interest begins to wane as we begin to ponder over all the missed opportunities as they pass by in favor of a higher body count. While the lead performance from Ryan Reynolds keeps us engaged through the end, it is too little to make up for what is essentially a run of the mill thriller that is more interested in blowing things up than indulge in its compelling fantasy of everlasting life via science.


As I watched Self/less I remember enjoying it for the most part. It was the ride home from the movie theater afterward where the problems started to arise as what at first appeared to be a smart little action thriller quickly became a problematic mess of ideas mixed with bullets and explosions. For me, a sign of a good film experience is one where during the ride home I begin to replay what I just saw in my head and do it with a fondness that makes me want to discuss everything it did right as opposed to everything it did wrong. Self/less did not pass this test.

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