Self/Less (M)

2 out of 5 stars (2 / 5)
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Ben Kingsley, Matthew Goode

“Can we gain immortality?” That’s an age-old question about seeking after more to the life we have been given. Self/less looks at what we gain and what we lose by seeking after eternal life. Especially if you had enough money to buy immortality, and it was being offered to you. Would you pay for the opportunity to not die?

Most of us would never have enough money to even consider the probability of this eternal conundrum, But for billionaire businessman Damian Hale (Ben Kingsley), it is a possibility. He is a dying of cancer and thinks he deserves a longer life. He takes on the mortality gamble through a questionable procedure developed by Dr. Albright (Matthew Goode). The procedure will end his bodily life, but place his mind/soul into a new and improved body.

After his death, he wakes up as a younger man (Ryan Reynolds), but soon realises that there are some issues with the exchange. Asking for clarification from Albright and his organisation, they begin to subtly and then forcefully manipulate his new existence. Increasingly, Damian becomes aware of the history of man’s body that he inhabits, and realises how he will eventually kill off that other man’s being.

If the film’s description sounds convoluted, the viewing experience twists and turns beyond comprehension. Self/less looks like a fresh spin on the fountain of youth storyling, but suffers from an identity crisis. Kingsley is convincing as the vicious building mogul of New York, Reynolds provides the predictable portrayal of the comic-charmer he plays in most films, and Matthew Goode is perfect as insidious mad scientist Albright. The right players are in place for Tarsem Singh’s (Mirror Mirror, Immortals) story, but he struggles with identifying what genre to travel in this cinematic journey.

Singh seems to be troubled by the same multi-personality crisis of his central characters. His film starts off as a contemplative quest of identification, then moves to family drama, before becoming a Bourne-like action adventure with a dash of murder mystery added in. Then it tries to go back and forth between each genre, but is unsuccessful in delivering a satisfactory result. Each of the potential storylines has some appealing elements that would have made for fascinating considerations but, as a mix, they develop a schizophrenic experience.

The existential wrestling match is not new, nor is the rich attempting to buy eternal life. From Heaven Can Wait to Vanilla Sky or In Time, this proposition has been part of the cinematic landscape. There are even urban legends in the real world, of the rich striving for similar immortal opportunities. For it to work on the silver screen, the story does not have to be believable, but it does need to be probable. The audience has to buy that the experiment could potentially work, if the right technology existed and people had enough money to pay for it. Such possibilities have worked in other films, but the disjointed feel of Self/less undermines the probability of its central body-swap gimmick. In the end, this is a story that was meant to be about acquiring eternal life, but ultimately is dead on arrival.

Even with it’s failings, Self/less redeems itself through the range of topics to consider about the human experience. From the opening scene, it represents a journey through an Ecclesiastes-type existence. “Vanity, vanity” pours forth from Damian Hale’s life. This life shows that money can provide all the world has to offer — even the unbelievable — but humanity cannot find all it needs from life in mere material things. As both Kingsley and Reynolds’ characters go through the process of finding out what is important in their lives or life, they are confronted with an overarching theme of the ultimate sacrifice. Specifically, both central characters have the juxtaposition of determining for whom they would sacrifice their life. Even though the Self/less storyline had a cinematic identity crisis, it does manage to touch on some of humanity’s deepest queries. What it lacks in entertainment value, it offers in engaging discussion points.

Leaving the cinema…

Self/less has all of the elements for a super-charged experience, but arrives in a cinematic coma.

What are some of the bigger questions to consider from this film?
1. What does the Bible have to say about sacrifice?  (Roman 5:8, Romans 12:1-2)
2. Can we achieve immortality? (Romans 6:23, 1 Corinthians 15:53)

3. What does this life have to offer? (Ecclesiastes, The gospel of John)