Unless you were paying close attention beforehand you would never know that the new sci-fi thriller “Self/less” was directed by the one and only Tarsem Singh. At worst, the often frustrating filmmaker has always had a keen eye, whether it was used helming a landmark music video such as REM's “Loosing My Religion” or creating visual feats such as “The Fall” or “Immortals.” Why Singh took such a conservative approach to this particular film, a project that could have used his stylistic flourishes, is head scratching.
The concept is pretty simple. A dying billionaire, Damian Hale (Ben Kinsgley), is given the opportunity to “shed” his current body and inhabit a younger, healthier shell. In theory, it's painless; it just uses a machine to transfer the memories from one person into the brain of another. Actually that means it's just a new body that thinks it's the previous person, but the last thing David and Alex Pastor's screenplay wants you to do is think too hard about the exact science that's at play here. Before you know it the “new” Damian is having flashbacks to a life he hasn't lived and quickly realizes he's inhabiting another man's body (Edward, a man who sacrificed himself to pay for his young daughter's healthcare bills). This doesn't sit well with his benefactor, Dr. Albright (Matthew Goode), whose expert henchmen have a hard time taking down a Park Avenue type who now has the reflexes of a U.S. Army veteran.
While the sci-fi element is key to keeping the storyline moving the Pastors and Singh seem more interested in using it to set up different action set pieces and finding a way to rehabilitate Damian's cold-hearted character. Granted, the fight scenes are well done, but they often seem less believable than the body swamping idea which, clearly, is a problem.
If Singh came on board “Self/less” as a “work for hire” job, he's simply too talented to completely mail it in. When Damian first explores his new body (in decadent New Orleans no less) Singh has no interest in a traditional montage. He collaborates with editor and longtime collaborator Robert Duffy to create a rhythmic motif that quickly moves the audience past Damian's sexual escapades without ignoring the fact he'd take full advantage. Unfortunately, the rest of the film feels like it was directed by a slick Hollywood shooter. There were elements of this conservative hand in his last film, “Mirror, Mirror,” but at the time Singh framed it that he'd specifically changed his style for a family audience.
As for the cast, Reynolds is clearly trying not to overdo it, but he brings little of Kingsley's dogged old school New Yorker into Damian's new form. Kingsley, on the other hand, has a NY accent that comes and goes. Thankfully he finds ways in his perforce to make “old” Damian more sympathetic than he should be before the big switcheroo. We're slightly worried Goode is getting unfairly typecast as he can play this sort of intellectual bad guy in his sleep. Natalie Martinez has the thankless role of Edward's confused and distraught wife, but she certainly gives her more depth than the part requires.
Ultimately, the movie is a professionally made thriller with genre elements you've seen numerous times before. And like Edward's memories that continue to fade away each day Damian remains in control of his body, the more time passes the more forgettable “Self/less” becomes.
“Self/less” opens nationwide on Friday.