For a Tarsem Singh production, Self/less noticeably lacks for aesthetic pomp. Save for a fetching superimposition of Central Park and the face of “the man who built New York” that reflects the film’s supposed theme of the projection of the self, Singh’s propensity for the ornate is visible mostly in surfaces that illuminate only Damian’s (Ben Kingsley) luxe, as in the obscenely plated restaurant salad that’s sprinkled with the peanuts the rich man is allergic to. Dying of cancer, Damian undergoes a procedure known as “shedding” that transplants his consciousness into a healthy, younger body (Ryan Reynolds). Given the powerful, even poignant, articulation of compassion that distinguished Singh’s wonkily aestheticized feature debut, The Cell, the film’s corporate blandness is almost as dispiriting as its disinterest in exploiting the inherent saliency of the material: shedding’s weird science as a potential salve for a one-percenter’s empathy deficit.
But Damian’s only discernable deficiency is his aloof relationship to his do-gooder daughter, Claire (Michelle Dockery), and the blasé sentimentality of the film is such that Damian’s search for the truth behind his hallucinations of another life lived (he learns that his adopted body wasn’t exactly made in a petri dish) exists only to alleviate his feelings of parental guilt. The film, as if in contempt of Reynolds’s talent, doesn’t even bother to task the actor with pretending to play a rich New Yawker trapped inside the body of an all-American army guy. The story simply dawdles in scenic New Orleans for a spell, with Damian enjoying peanut butter and using his new, beefy host body for the procurement of routine putang, before getting down to business in St. Louis, articulating Damian’s crisis of consciousness by way of a relentless stream of narrative twists and turns that exude neither imagination in their craftsmanship nor moral revulsion in their implications.
Whatever flimsy impression Self/less initially gives of Damian’s fear of dying is lost by the time the story submits unquestioningly to its jamboree of fires, shootings, car crashes, and double crosses. There’s no sense of existential anguish to Damian taking pills to slowly erase the “glitches” of the consciousness belonging to his borrowed body, only the sinking suspicion that his junkie-like obsession is mere grist for another convenient and boring narrative sleight of hand. Through it all, the shredding project’s architect, Albright (Matthew Goode), ensures that no point about death, creation, and the quest for immortality isn’t made obvious. Amusingly, though, Reynolds is at least allowed to play to his great strength as a purveyor of shit-eating grins, twice calling bullshit on the condescension of Goode’s Dr. Frankenstein. In a film that evinces so little thought, it’s almost transcendent to see the actor articulate the exasperation of having been transplanted into an embarrassing reimagining of Frankeheimer’s Seconds.