Immortality is one of those elusive concepts that ranks up there with money, power and fame; people yearn for it, spending their whole lives trying to achieve the impossible dream of living forever. At most, all you can leave behind is a legacy that speaks when you no longer can. But for the impossibly wealthy in director Tarsem Singh’s mind-bending sci-fi SELF/LESS, immortality is just one binding contract away. At first glance, it treads on the same territory as LIMITLESS (Limit/Less?!), THE SKELETON KEY and FREEJACK. If that’s not a selling point, I don’t what is. However, dig a little deeper and you’ll find a surprisingly smart, provocative and pulsating thriller.
Damian Hale (Sir Ben Kingsley) is a billionaire businessman who’s lived life more “my way” than the right way, valuing commerce over compassion. Having screwed over more than his fair share of business partners – though inexplicably not confidante Martin O’Neil (Victor Garber) – and torpedoing his relationship with his daughter Claire (Michelle Dockery), he finds himself at a crossroads now that he’s dying. However, there’s an out! Phoenix Biogenic, run by Dr. Albright (the unflinching Matthew Goode), has the solution to all of life’s problems – so long as one can pay. By swapping bodies, or “shedding” as they call it, the impossibly wealthy are able to defy death, living life over again on their own terms in younger, hotter bodies. But where do these perfected human specimens come from? Because Damian’s never been one to question ethics or morals, this burning question doesn’t cross his mind until it’s too late – i.e. after he’s been boozing and using his new identity, Edward (Ryan Reynolds). It’s at this point when the new body’s previous consciousness starts usurping Damian’s, showing him its repressed memories. All Hell breaks loose as he tries to uncover the mystery behind Phoenix Biogenic.
Alex and David Pastor’s script is pretty airtight. It keeps viewers on their toes keeping up with an electric pace. The stereotypical twists and turns endemic to the genre are thought-provoking and, best of all, deeply engrossing. With no logic problems to get in the way, and blessedly no exposition or villainous speech dumps to bog things down, the picture has a brisk, snappy feeling. Unlike a few films in the same genre, it gives clear-cut answers to the questions it poses. This isn’t just a point/less exercise. Reoccurring themes of redemption and resurrection are handled in a refreshing manner, never feeling tired. The usual hokey and often ham-handed hook of parental guilt is dosed out perfectly, subtly placed by Damian and briefly echoed later by Edward. Plus, Singh thankfully keeps the camera locked down, forgoing the now super-annoying, Greengrass-y handheld style.
Though Singh doesn’t fall prey to lazy action sequences, visually this sleek sci-fi can border on being life/less. To signify Damian’s ostentatious style transforming into Edward’s minimalist persona, the picture itself almost goes through a fascinating identity shift. While his auteur’s eye never turns into a blind one (as I said, there are no logic problems), it’s not the same cinematic panache you may expect from the filmmaker who crafted such visually sumptuous films as THE CELL, THE FALL and IMMORTALS. Here, it seems Singh is clearly inspired by some parts of Fincher’s spirit (like bristling cold edits, camera techniques and tone), but not all of it. What’s missing is the stuff that would take visual storytelling to the next level – which is surprising since Singh is a visionary director who’s never been one to hold back stylistically.
When it comes to casting, the filmmakers seem a little clue/less as to how properly utilize their stellar cast. Dockery is relegated to a thank/less supporting role. After starring on a hugely popular series, Hollywood should be writing better for her, but here we are in a post-NON-STOP world. It’s also disheartening to see Natalie Martinez relegated to a one-note help/less mom role when the role could have been fleshed out more. Reynolds gives an almost passion/less performance. Playing a trio of characters, he settles on barely giving life to one of those.
Centered slightly off the mark of true greatness, SELF/LESS may make a few missteps but at least its high-concept is an invigorating one. Nothing here really overstays its welcome – but it doesn’t linger much either.
3.5 out of 5
SELF/LESS opens on July 10.