What if you could live for another lifetime in another body?
It's an intriguing proposal, and one worth pondering. It's the inquiry that drives Self/less, a new sci-fi/thriller film from director Tarsem Singh. It's only the director's first film since 2012, and only his seventh director credit in his career. But this is a matter of quality over quantity, and as Self/less quickly proves, the old adage holds true.
It's a simple procedure called "shedding," as Dr. Albright (Matthew Goode) calls it, where the consciousness of one human is transferred into the body of another. Two bodies - one alive, and one created in a lab, lying unconscious - enter CT scanner-like machines. The result: the formerly unconscious man comes alive, but with the consciousness of the other. Man has created immortality.
Although Ryan Reynolds drives the film, it's polished veteran Ben Kingsley who starts the engine. He plays Damian, a cancer-stricken multibillionaire with a six-month death sentence. But not one to just leave the Earth he financially conquered, he engages in some curious research. He comes up with Dr. Albright's shedding procedure, and sees a way to continue his life, albeit with another body. Can his extreme opulence allow him to cheat death? Unlike business, Damian has everything to gain and nothing to lose.
After publicly faking his death and heading to Dr. Albright's lab, the shedding is a success, and Damian takes over the body of a young, handsome man (Reynolds), who then takes on the name of Edward. But as he gets used to his new body, Edward struggles with vivid hallucinations, a side-effect of the procedure. Thankfully, they can be suppressed with some red pills Dr. Albright provides. Now freshly young, Edward can craft a new legacy with an entire life's worth of wisdom and experience.
From here, Self/less dives in to the implications of shedding. Besides Edward's skill in hooking up with women - "I haven't done this in over fifty-three years," he ironically jokes to one of them - he struggles to refrain contact with his daughter Claire (Michelle Dockery), who he longs to make amends with after regretful neglect. To her, her father died before he could apologize.
Watching Edward pick up the phone and call Claire just to hear her voice pulls at the heartstrings, and the camera handles the scene - as well as most others - with beautiful sorrow. Could just accepting death have been a less painful fate?
As we ponder these questions, Edward's hallucinations become vividly real - as if they were memories that did not belong to him. So Edward tracks down a landmark he saw in his mind, and begins to poke around the home he finds there. There are pictures of him with a small family on the wall. A picture of him in army gear. But didn't Dr. Albright say his new body was grown in a lab? Edward keeps sticking his nose where it doesn't belong, and some won't like it.
Self/less then shifts course and indulges in the thriller aspect of its genre, as Edward's discoveries suddenly put him in grave danger. The film, which has been delicately paced (the exceptions being well-cut montages of post-shedding therapy and sex-capades), quickens to a rapid beat, and the editing dances to the beat of jazz - the background theme of Edward's New Orleans home. The ebb and flow of the pacing combined with expert camerawork results in a stimulating film that refuses to relinquish audience attention.
Thrills and action aside, Self/less does not stop exploring its scientific themes. As Edward discovers his new body actually had a family - a wife Madeline (Natalie Martinez) and an adorable daughter, Anna (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen) - he weighs the morality of possessing the father's body. His reappearance, to mother and child, throws them for an emotional loop. But now that he's gotten this far, Edward just can't call it quits; he must press on, and so the movie continues on a captivating path that never once regresses into absurdity.
It warrants a tip of the hat to Reynolds, who had the difficult task of portraying the exact personality that Kingsley puts forth. He certainly does well. And while nobody is exactly turning in an Oscar performance, they remain grounded enough in their roles that Self/less feels like a emotionally and thematically complete movie. Coupled with vivid, portrait-like cinematography by Brendan Galvin and sharp writing from brothers David and Alex Pastor, Self/less is a refreshingly original watch to contrast summer blockbusters. To see that the movie sports a 21% on the tomatometer as of this writing seems so incredibly wrong.
The movie comes at an especially critical time in the career of Reynolds, who has seen his Hollywood status drop as of late - the trough being the bomb that was Green Lantern. Although it will almost certainly be next year's Deadpool that will rocket Reynolds back into the Hollywood spotlight, Self/less is nonetheless a respectable notch in his belt, and a step in the right direction.
Written by David Pastor and Alex Pastor. Directed by Tarsem Singh.
Starring Ryan Reynolds, Ben Kingsley, and Matthew Goode.