If the twin successes of Mad Max: Fury Road and Ex Machina have something to say about genre fiction in 2015, it’s that a simple premise envisioned with thoughtful craft can pump as much blood to the cognitive parts of your brain as it does the pleasure centers. Meeting nicely in the middle between head-trip and Neanderthal action vehicle is Self/less, the latest film from acclaimed visualist and debatable storyteller Tarsem Singh (AKA Tarsem). Though his last two efforts – the Snow White and 300 also-rans, respectively, Mirror Mirror and Immortals – failed to produce Hollywood fare as bankable as his career-defining The Fall was beautiful, Self/less is unmistakably, uniquely Tarsem, despite the derivative appearance.
An apposite clash between creative forces seen and unseen makes for one of the many engaging threads to pull at while watching Self/less, a twisty thriller all about exteriors and interiors wrestling for control. On its surface, Self/less is a rather bog standard addition to the well-populated world of body swap fiction. Aged Manhattan aristocrat Damian Hale (Ben Kingsley), our protagonist, is introduced on his last legs. Cancer is cutting Damian off of the champagne life at 68, which is barely enough time to settle his nonuple-digit business affairs, let alone reconcile with his estranged daughter (Michelle Dockery).
A mysterious business card from the Phoenix Corporation leads Damian into the groundbreaking and underground science of “shedding,” a process that transfers the consciousness of the sick or the senior into a genetically grown replacement. After a little convincing from Phoenix’s silver-tongued figurehead, Albright (Matthew Goode), Damian is out a few million dollars, and into a youthful body that looks an awful lot like Ryan Reynolds. Put up in New Orleans by Albright for a little fun in the sun while the transfer works out some kinks, Damian enjoys a brief vacation in his new identity, before a dark conspiracy starts coming to light.
The ironic names and speculative science of Self/less make it a dead ringer for a lost Dickian short story, with flashes of “Paycheck” and “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” making themselves felt even before Damian discovers his fresh bod had a previous tenant. Seems a Louisiana army veteran willingly became Damian’s surrogate, and once that man’s wife, Madeline (Natalie Martinez), and daughter (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen) are put in harm’s way by Damian’s actions, a man-on-the-run-looking-for-answers picture takes the reins on Self/less.
The character arcs and plotting won’t shock anyone even remotely familiar with these identity drama ingredients, though Self/less packs in so many smaller turns that at least a couple are bound to catch you off guard. What does come as a surprise is how successfully the film elevates a functional B-movie story into a sensory and smart piece of genre filmmaking.
After a string of came-and-went indies and the should-never-have-been comedy The Change-Up, a film like Self/less might present the apotheosis of Ryan Reynolds’ recent career. In the five years separating the comic bookends of Green Lantern and next year’s Deadpool, Reynolds has rarely been cast in a role appropriate to his talent. Here, an alternately blinkered and physical performance is mainly what’s required from him. Reynolds proves a perfect fit in this limited capacity, but a few scenes demonstrate the broadened range he’s picked up since last jumping into the spandex required of a modern blockbuster lead.
More important, though, is what Tarsem and his creative team are bringing to the table. Tarsem’s eye for the ornate is as valuable to the opulent and focused first hour of Self/less as it is restrained by the action-heavy back half, which confines the story to motels and warehouses. But even the most mundane location, like a parking lot or a retirement home, integrates mise en scène and careful framing to tie Self/less together thematically and visually in ways the plot can’t. Given how effectively he stages a number of close quarters fights and shootouts, Tarsem’s pedestrian car chase aesthetic is all that’s preventing him from being among Hollywood’s most undervalued action directors.
The two supporting pillars helping Tarsem prop up Self/less belong to the sound design, and editing by Robert Duffy. Their synergy is at its most noticeable during a few non-linear montages, which bring vibrancy to otherwise mechanical story beats. The best intercuts Damian enjoying his new lease on life with footage of local dancers tapping on crushed soda cans. The sequence finds a rhythm in days spent luxuriating and nights spent sleeping around that’s more intoxicating than watching any one of those activities alone. The craftiest touch in the montage is how it crescendos with the simplest running thread; Damian purchasing, opening, then enjoying a spoonful of peanut butter, a treat denied to him in his old, allergic body.
There are so many small, brilliant details in Self/less that the narrative leaps ignored or outright noted by screenwriters David and Àlex Pastor get easier to sweep under the rug the more they pop up. A long tilt up a two-story chandelier is accompanied by the prescient sound of ice colliding in a tumbler; a burst of gunfire aimed at bulletproof glass quickly cuts between sides to audibly distinguish who’s in control; a ghost from the past makes itself know by voice alone. Self/less works just fine as a sci fi thriller, but look beneath the surface for the philosophical quandaries of its premise, or appreciate just how expertly composed that surface is, and you’ll find a summer sleeper that’s more than meets the eye.
Self/less has a lot of surprises in store, the most important being just how enjoyable and well-made it is.