2.5 out of 5 stars
If you had enough money to buy immortality, would you do it?
Most may never have enough money to consider the probability of this eternal conundrum, but in the life of Damian Hale (Ben Kingsley), it is a possibility. He is a billionaire dying of cancer and thinks he deserves a longer life. He takes on the mortality gamble through a questionable procedure developed by Dr. Albright. The procedure that will end his life, but place his 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. Damian has visions that seem to imply that the body he is inhabiting may have been used before. As he asks for clarification from Dr. Albright and his organisation, they begin to subtly and then forcefully manipulate his new existence. With this comes the awareness of the other man's history and the realisation that by inhabiting this man, he will eventually kill off his being. Eventually, both of the men who indwell this body have to come to terms with the sacrifices that they both must make for the sake of living this new life.
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 narrative, but suffers from an identity crisis. Kingsley is convincing as the vicious building mogul of New York, Reynolds fills the predictable portrayal of the comic-charmer he plays in most films and Matthew Goode is perfect as Dr. Albright, the insidious mad scientist. It has the right players in place for Tarsem Singh’s (Mirror Mirror, Immortals) story, but struggles with identifying what genre to travel in this cinematic journey. Singh seems to struggle with the same multi-personality crisis of his central characters. It starts off as a contemplative quest of identification then moves to family drama then becomes 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. The rich attempting to buy eternal life. From Heaven Can Wait to Vanilla Sky to In Time, this proposition has been part of the cinematic landscape. There are even urban legends of the rich striving for similar immortal opportunities in the real world. Yet, 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 consider if the experiment could potentially work if people are given enough money and find the right technology. It has worked in other films, but the disjointed feel of Self/less undermines the probability of this consideration. 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 does redeem itself through the range of topics to consider about the human experience. From the opening scene, it represented a journey through a world without material limits that is reticent in Damien Hale’s life. Showing that money can provide all the world has to offer, even the unbelievable, but mankind cannot find all it needs from life in mere material things. As both men go through the process of finding out what is important in their lives or life and 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 does offer in engaging discussion points.
Reel Dialogue: What are some of the bigger questions to consider from this film?
- What does the Bible have to say about sacrifice?
- Can we achieve immortality?
- What does this life have to offer?