The way of all flesh: A critical review of “Self/less” (2015)

What I like about Ben Kingsley is what all right thinking people like about Ben Kingsley: that he’ll be in your movie no matter what it is. He is the only actor to date who won an Oscar for portraying Gandhi and has been the supernatural super villain in two lackluster video game adaptations, a distinction he will probably hold for a long time. Why does he do it? Are more artistically satisfying roles harder to come by? Is he chasing the almighty dollar? Or could it be that he just loves to work and honestly will act in anything? So imagine my delight when I saw the cover art for “Self/less,” a big budget thriller with sci fi undertones, featuring Mr. Kingsley’s Academy-worthy face.

Ladies and gentlemen, I was lied to.

“Self/less” is an overlong and disappointingly mundane film that features Ben Kingsley for about 12 minutes before shifting over to Ryan Reynolds. Kingsley plays Damian Hale, a wealthy old man who is dying of cancer and agrees to undergo a shady procedure to place his personality into a younger body–that of Reynolds (oddly enough, not dissimilar from the setup for Reynold’s recent superhero vehicle “Deadpool”). Naturally enough, the procedure isn’t quite what he expected, as memories from the body’s original inhabitant begin to leak through, giving him headaches, hallucinations and guilt trips. He goes on a journey to find said original inhabitant’s wife and child, karate chopping agents of the cryptic doctor who performed the operation along the way and flipping over a few cars for good measure.

“Self/less” sports a classic sci fi premise (if it were about 90 minutes shorter, it could have been an interesting episode of “The Twilight Zone”), and it’s handsomely photographed by cinematographer Brendan Galvin, although director Tarsem Singh (“Immortals”) seldom holds a shot for more than a few seconds; it’s most annoyingly noticeable in a vid-clip montage of Hale having fun in Reynolds’s body during the first act of the film (the editing was by Robert Duffy, who is, like Galvin, a frequent collaborator with Singh). However, the acting is never above average–Matthew Goode, who was so delightful in “Stoker,” is locked into an unimaginative role as the mad scientist–and the script, by the brothers Alex and David Pastor, is almost always below average.

What is fascinating about “Self/less” is what actually could have been fascinating about “Self/less.” The film takes an unflinchingly materialist–with nary a shred of dualism–understanding of human identity. Bodies are biological machines that house personality, which can hang around like snot on a tissue. It’s not a bad comparison, because the solution to an old personality clinging to its biology is to take pills–identity is a disease, and its symptoms can be fixed with medication. A script that makes such a bold statement must surely touch on some big issues, right? Nope, says “Self/less,” that’s not what I’m about.

See, “Self/less” could have been a more thoughtful film, raising questions and allowing us the room to ponder the answers. But “Self/less” wants to do something else. Throughout the entire film, there’s the unnerving sense that it wants to teach us something about being selfless (get it? Haw). Hale is, apparently, a mean old man, and he needs to learn to…I’m not sure, actually. Make way for the young? Connect with his family? Because none of the characters are all that fleshed out, I really don’t care who ends up with Reynolds’s inoffensive body and attempting-to-be-serious face. Maybe that’s the danger of not only having too many characters in one plot but of having too many characters in one character.

If you’re not going to ask big questions or give straight answers, there’s always the possibility that you can have some straightforward, but still intelligent, genre fun. Don’t hold your breath. Given the intensity of Hale’s hallucinations when the old memories start to get to him, there was an interesting opportunity for some Philip K. Dickery about reality and perception, but that never materializes either. Oh well. The highlight of the film is watching someone get torched, by accident, with a flamethrower. It’s possible to find something to love in even the most disappointing of experiences, I suppose.

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