For a film by Tarsem Singh (The Cell, Immortals), Self/less has a surprising lack of visual pizzazz. Save for the film’s opening moments, which depict Damian’s (Ben Kingsley) wealth with the understated touch of Donald Trump, and a later scene set in the vibrant streets of New Orleans, the film does little to distinguish itself visually from similar “enhanced body” stories that have become popular in recent years. In the case of Damian, that enhanced body comes from a process known as “shedding,” which transplants the consciousness of a person into a younger and healthier body. For Damian, who is dying of cancer after years climbing to the heights of power in New York, it seems like a golden opportunity.
But what does Damian want with a new life, in a new body (Ryan Reynolds)? Outside of a general desire to not die, the film doesn’t give him any motivation for going through with this risky (and expensive) treatment. But when he’s plagued by hallucinations of a life that’s not his own, Damian discovers that his body belonged to another man before, rather than being one made new for him. This leads Damian from New Orleans to St. Louis to track down his body’s past, and attempts to force Damian to come to terms with the realities of his situation.
If Self/less wants to make a grand case about the importance of living life, though (and I think that’s what the film’s message is aiming for), it’s seriously diluted by the string of violent attacks and deaths that pile up around Damian. It doesn’t help that the creator of shedding, Dr. Albright (Matthew Goode), runs his messages about death and the longing for immortality into the ground. That’s what makes Singh’s lack of presence here frustrating. Some of the concepts here are weird enough that, if he had applied his typical visual flair, it might have saved part of this film. He didn’t, and it shows.