117 min., rated PG-13.
The concept of transporting someone's consciousness to another body is not untouched but never unwelcome in sci-fi cinema. "Self/less" starts with a fascinating idea and then does little with it, but it's never without surface-level entertainment value to forgive the film for its trouble spots. What knocks the film up a few notches from "generic" is having director Tarsem Singh at the helm. Singh has proven his worth as an artistic, in-demand visionary filmmaker with quite an eye—ever since 2000's dazzling, surrealistic "The Cell"—and while his last film, 2012's "Mirror Mirror," was opulent to look at, it showed his lack of comedic instincts that such a cheeky "Snow White" take-off needed. Fortunately, "Self/less" isn't a comedy, though it's not without humor and could draw plenty of comparison to all of the world's body-switching comedies, but with a smaller scope, he's never able to get lost in his own snazzy aesthetics, as was the case with 2011's overblown, hollow "Immortals." It might have little of Singh's visual mark, but there is still a slick style here. This body-swapping thriller might kick its ambitions to the curb too early, however, there is a certain loopy pleasure to be had.
Damian Hale (Ben Kingsley) is a wealthy New York real estate tycoon, but his 68-year-old body is failing him from cancer and his estranged relationship with daughter Claire (Michelle Dockery) is beyond repair. Upon receiving a card from Dr. Albright (Matthew Goode), Damian agrees to go through with the mysterious underground company Phoenix and their "shedding" process in which a person's mind and memories can be transferred to another body. First, he must stage a public death, and from there, Damian's body is placed into an MRI machine that is shared with a younger, healthier body, which Albright claims to be genetically engineered out of the lab. When Damian wakes up, he has a new identity as 35-year-old "Eddie" (Ryan Reynolds). Kept on a leash in New Orleans where he spends his time hooking up with hot chicks, driving fast cars, playing basketball, eating peanut butter (the old him use to be allergic), rinse and repeat, "Eddie" begins having seizures and sweat-inducing hallucinations, or "false memories," of a woman named Madeline (Natalie Martinez) and her 6-year-old daughter, Anna (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen), when he forgets to take his daily medication. Did Damian steal the life of someone else named "Mark"? Luckily, "Mark" knows how to fight and shoot when absolutely necessary.
Having not seen 1966's "Seconds" by which this film apparently seems influenced, it can't be said that "Self/less" is a grave-robber of that Rock Hudson-starring sci-fier, though it is familiar of "Total Recall" and any of the Jason Bourne films. In its early run, the film even reminds of the 2011 Bradley Cooper vehicle "Limitless" with a fast-paced, expertly cut montage in New Orleans, synched up to some street drummers' Stomp-like rhythm. The central germ of an idea is an intriguing one, but the screenplay by brothers David and Àlex Pastor (2009's "Carriers") washes away most of the potential and offers less to think about. Instead of exploring the ramifications of immortality and identity even in the mode of a thriller, the film turns its premise into window dressing for a "Bourne"-style conspiratorial actioner with fisticuffs, gunplay, car crashes, and even the amusing use of a flame-thrower being turned on a bunch of goons. Once the new Damian catches on with what is going on—and the viewer is already way ahead of him—"Self/less" goes on auto-pilot and gets a bit dumb in its telegraphing of obvious plot twists. Dr. Albright, who might as well be wearing a sign that reads "Mad Scientist," lets a key element slip out about one of the new, able-bodied Damian's "hallucinations" that he wouldn't know. Damian-as-Eddie is also able to dig for details on Wikipedia, which seems like too easy of a script convenience.
Ryan Reynolds' inherent likability helps the actor actualize Damian's predicament, and once he acquires the deadly skills learned by the new body, he is more than capable. There is little continuity between his solid performance and Ben Kingsley, whose presence is pretty much wasted but gives the opening ten minutes some class and amusement on behalf of his New York accent. It is difficult to buy into Kingsley essentially being inside Reynolds' body, and any opportunity to flesh out either version is mostly inadequate. Old Damian was an unethical son of a bitch who would try buying his daughter's love, and now as New Damian, he tries redeeming his old ways through the body of a man who left his wife and daughter. Natalie Martinez (TV's "Secrets and Lies") is emotionally available as widow Madeline, and Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen, as Madeline's daughter, is so adorable it should be illegal. (Is it a coincidence that two mothers in the film are named Madeline and Judy, Kim Novak's dual characters in Hitchcock's "Vertigo"?) As Dr. Albright, Matthew Goode exudes arrogance and untrustworthiness, and while there's a less-predictable reveal with his character, he is asked to remain dry and two-dimensional for much of it. Other key roles are ably filled by Victor Garber, as Damian's closest friend Martin; Derek Luke, as Anton, a New Orleansian whom "Eddie" befriends on the basketball court; and Michelle Dockery, as Claire, Damian's estranged adult daughter who runs a non-profit organization.
Every problem with the script cannot be disputed but doesn't dampen all of the rudimentary fun, either. The action is tightly handled and coolly stylish, including a scuffle in a farmhouse kitchen and an escape under the house, as well as a vehicular chase on a long stretch of road. The dual father-daughter stuff for the old and new Damian is ham-fisted and underdeveloped, but at least there's some attempt at emotional investment. In spite of the potential to be more, "Self/less" remains an entertaining enough thriller as its unambitious self. It probably won't be remembered long enough to have a second life, but for a film that eventually opts for polish over substance, at least there was a corker of a setup here. Small victories are better than none.