Welcome to B-movie territory. Self/Less is silly, brainless and paint-by-numbers in an endearing fashion. It's ideal lazy Sunday afternoon fare. The type of film you'd be happy to find playing on cable on a rainy day. If this were the golden 70's, Self/Less could very well have opened with the words: "Presented by Roger Corman."
Unsurprisingly, the plot is rehashed genre fun. Damian, a wealthy dying man (Sir Ben Kingsley, Schindler's List) pays a mysterious organization to transfer his consciousness into a healthy body (Ryan Reynolds, The Green Lantern) giving him a second chance at life. This process is referred to as shedding.
Hardly an inspired concept, and the screenplay lives up to that lack of inspiration. You could make a drinking game out of spotting the plot holes. And yet, thanks to the visually dazzling work of Immortals director Tarsem Singh, the film hangs together.
Every visual element is cleverly employed, from Singh's choice of locations to the framing of individual shots. The film is artful and precisely made. Singh has helmed underrated sleepers decked with breathtaking, unforgettable imagery, such as The Cell. His skilled presence can be felt in every scene.
However, Singh's trademark surreal landscapes are not on display in Self/Less. In their place, he delivers grounded, yet equally eye-popping visuals, which never distract from the narrative's thrust. It's a smart choice, as the script is light on nuance and detail.
Self/Less values its plot far above its characters. The screenplay's brisk pace prevents us from getting to know these archetypes as they chase and shoot guns at each other.
The adjustment Damian must make to his new body is handled by an abrupt training montage from which the audience learns nothing about the process itself. The writing occasionally feels lazy, but that fast pace is essential to maintain the flow of the narrative, which is the film's strongest point. You actually want to find out how the story ends, despite the admittedly clunky approach.
Reynolds gives an unexpectedly restrained performance in contrast to Kingsley, who seems bored in his brief role. Bizarrely, Kingsley's accent ranges from a gruff Al Pacino impression in an early scene to hints of a Russian dialect in another. After the transfer, we expect to see something of Kingsley's character in Reynolds. We don't, but are not given the down-time to realize it.
Reynolds plays the character as a quiet, bewildered action hero. Less is more seems to be his motto, and as a result, Reynolds acquits himself rather admirably. He's a charming, capable leading man, who even lucks into a rather memorable 'bad-ass' moment involving a flame-thrower.
Indeed, a film in which Ryan Reynolds out-performs Sir Ben Kingsley is a rare artifact. Although, as you could gather from the appearance of a flame-thrower, this is not exactly an ideal role to allow Kingsley to spread his wings.
Muted praise aside, the film lives in the shadows of better films. Entire sections resemble Requiem for a Dream's fast-cutting drug montages. A brief countryside interlude becomes visually reminiscent of Looper's farmland gun fights. Remember that other body switch movie, Face/Off? You know the one. It's the most famous film in cinema history to feature a backslash in its title. Heck, even Self/Less's plot is noticeably close to John Frankenheimer's sci-fi classic, Seconds.
The makers seem to have stacked the decks against themselves by inviting comparison to such well-known movies. It's truly a miracle that Self/Less works. Yet, it does.
It works because it knows what it is and more precisely, what it is not. As I said, we're in B-movie territory. This is not a film about ideas, like the much superior sci-fi gem Ex Machina. Self/Less is a film about RUN! SHOOT! GET DOWN! And that's not necessarily a bad thing.
Far from groundbreaking and sometimes forgettable, but as sci-fi action goes, Self/Less is above average.
Tony Hinds is a Canadian writer who studied film at the University of Winnipeg. In addition to ShowbizMonkeys.com, Tony has reviewed films for Step On Magazine and The Uniter. You can find Tony on Twitter.