Self/Less (dir. Tarsem Singh)

Posted: July 15, 2015 in Uncategorized

“Self/Less” has the potential to be a brilliant science-fiction drama about economic inequality, the cost of healthcare, and even how the United States treats its veterans.  Instead, for some unknown reason, the writers, brothers David and Alex Pastor, decided they wanted to waste their great idea by squeezing it into a lackluster action movie.  Or perhaps they just didn’t want to part with the two spate scenes in which people are killed via flamethrower, which is entirely too many scenes for a film that could have otherwise been an Andrew Niccol-type brilliant sci-fi film.

The premise is very intriguing. Ben Kingsley plays Damian Hayes, a rich architect who will die in six months from cancer.  He lives in an opulent and gaudy New York high rise apartment with more gold leaf than even Donald Trump could stand.  He doesn’t seem to be a particularly bad man, but he is a workaholic who was never around when his daughter (Michelle Dockery) was growing up.  Now she runs a non-profit, which bourgeois Damian describes as “kids throwing a tantrum”.  I imagine that’s a reference to Occupy Wall Street, and no doubt how many rich New Yorkers probably saw that movement.  One day, Damian finds a card in his wallet with a phone number and the cryptic phrase “they can help you”.  This leads him to meet, in a secret underground lab, with a doctor named Albright, played perfectly by Matthew Goode.  Albright is a neurologist who has developed a procedure in which the consciousness of a person trapped in a dying body can be put into a healthy body. It involves a giant machine that looks like dual MRIs and uses magnets.  Sure. Why not?  Apparently, Damian pays the rather light cost of $250 million for the privilege of cheating death, which seems rather low as we find out that Albright’s secretive science has a number of mercenaries on its payroll, the lease for the building the lab is located under, special pharmaceuticals, and the leases on various houses and cars for its clients.

It’s never explained why Albright, whose supposed reason for this secret science is to allow humanity’s great minds to continue living even if their bodies fail them (think Stephen Hawking) thinks an architect is worthy of this process.  One would think Albright was desperate for a capital infusion but can’t exactly go to a bank and ask for a business loan for his immortality-for-rich-fucks business and is taking on all comers.  In any case, Damian fakes his death with their help (Albright’s organization can do this too, I guess) and his consciousness is transported into a different body, played by Ryan Reynolds.  Damian was told that this body was grown in a test tube but, as you may already know from the trailers, it belonged to someone else. Damian, indeed, suffers from seizures in which he sees visions of the body’s past memories.  Albright gives him pills to suppress these seizures, equating them to anti-rejection drugs after an organ transplant.  The new body is fighting the invading consciousness, you see.

So after Damian has some fun in his new body, which basically means having a string of one night stands (hope he used a condom…consciousness transplants won’t help if his brain gets riddled with syphilis) and eating peanut butter (his old body was allergic to it), he goes chasing his body’s memories and finds out that they belong to a former solider named Marcus who sold himself to Albright’s organization to pay for his sick child’s medical treatment.  Yes, even with Obamacare dying slowly in America is still far more expensive than in any other first-world country.  Now, there are a lot of places you could go with this.  You could make a comment on how people who join the military are really just giving their bodies away as cannon fodder for the economic concerns of the rich people who send them off to war. “Self/Less” could have been an ultra-literal metaphor for that.  You could make a comment about how this rich guy can afford an experimental procedure because of his wealth, but poor Americans who have to rely on their insurance often cannot, and thus America’s healthcare is only better than other countries for those who have the luxury of affording it.  You could talk about how the poor often are forced to compromise themselves to live because free-markets do not mean people are free from the chains of their economic slavery.  There are perhaps dozens of different ways in which the premise of this film could have lead to a movie or movies which talked about any number of important political and economic concerns we have today in the United States.

But no.  The writers, who as far as I can tell have only previously ever written movies about various fictional pandemics, waste this terrific concept.  The only reason for the body to have belonged to an ex-military guy is so that Damian could have reflexive military skills (hand-to-hand combat and shooting ability) when fighting off Albright’s mercenaries.  It’s throw away as an explanation for an elderly architect to be able to fight off Blackwater, basically.  We also get a weird quasi-romantic subplot with the body’s wife (Natalie Martinez).  Granted, an interesting film could be made about a woman struggling to deal with the fact that a different consciousness exists inside the body of the person she loves, but “Self/Less” is not that movie.

I don’t want to make it sound like “Self/Less” is a bad movie, because it is not.  The first half hour is extremely well done. The issue is that the film decided to lazily become a not-so-good chase and action film when the premise deserves better.  The writers even put in nice touches, like giving characters little physical tics to carry over to when they change bodies.  I will say that I was at least one or two steps ahead of the film at every juncture, so the plot twists, when they do come, are either telegraphed way too obviously or way too early within the film.  If you watch enough movies, the plot twists will not be any surprise to you.

The director, Tarsem Singh, is known for being an extremely visual director.  His first film, “The Cell” had a weak script but gorgeous visuals.  I have not seen any of his other films, but I know from trailers that “The Fall” was similarly luscious visually.  “Immortals” looked like it was just “300” shot in blue tones, and the less said about “Mirror Mirror” the better.  “Self/Less” is not as visually interesting, but there were a few shots here and there which showcased that a good visual director was behind the camera, but otherwise it seems like Tarsem phoned this one in.

I have to go back to the character of Albright. Goode is so, well, good in this role that I wish the character was given meatier material.  I wish we saw him actually doing what he claims he wants to do, which is give new bodies to brilliant minds in failing bodies.  I also wish he had more of a justification for what is essentially murder than just “hey, I tried to grow bodies. I’m still working on it. Until then, well murder’s okay”.  I think back to Gene Hackman’s character in the film “Extreme Measures” (1996).  In that film, Hackman played a doctor who kidnapped and experimented on homeless people to try to cure cancer.  His justification was delivered in the line “If you could cure cancer by killing one person, wouldn’t you have to do that?”  I feel like Albright in this film needed to be less of a cipher for evil and more of well-meaning scientist who allowed his ethics to be corrupted over a grand scheme.  I wish the character, in order words, were given more humanity and layers.

“Self/Less” is fairly entertaining as it chugs along, and it may at least inspire audiences to have the intelligent conversations that the writers were unwilling to have with us. B-

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