At face value, Self/less appeared to be ordinary science fiction about body switching with the theme of immortality. Simple enough until I found out it was directed by Tarsem Singh, the man behind, The Cell, The Fall, and Immortals. My opinion immediately changed in anticipation for his signature Jodorowsky-on-steroids style and surrealist aesthetic. Is it another crazed fever-dream of Tarsem’s imagination or is it as ordinary as I was led to believe?
While he has not abandoned his eccentric use of camera and scene composition, Self is Tarsem’s most accessible and normal movie to date. For a man known for being an artist in the sense of a painter in the director’s chair, it was confounding to see his name attached to such a plain film.
After a fatal episode as a result of terminal cancer, Damian, played by Ben Kingsley, seeks out the mysterious Albright, played by Matthew Goode, to help transfer his consciousness into a younger body played by Ryan Reynolds. A few weeks after the procedure, Damian experiences hallucinations of memories that are not his and sets out to discover their meaning.
To put everything in perspective, the only film of Tarsem’s that I have seen is Immortals, a movie many probably do not remember exists. I am familiar with The Cell from Nostalgia Critic’s review and I just watched the trailer for The Fall. What all three have in common is a style not unlike a classical painting, vibrant with color and detail. The design and set up of each scene is arranged in such a way they work as still images and frames of film. Immortals is basically Greek Mythology paintings, mosaics, and bas-relief sculptures brought to life. They are meticulous in their appearance and it is obvious a lot of effort was put into making the elements of each scene work in perfect cohesion.
Self is an ordinary story with a contemporary aesthetic, but Tarsem makes the film look more than how a normal director would shoot it. Even with a muted color pallet of blues and skin tones each scene is a cleanly shot tableau. Instead of creating sets with an artistic flair, there are nice arrangements of ordinary elements in room settings that have absolutely nothing going on, but look great. Self succeeds in a strictly visual sense if you do not factor in the story.
I have said before to make plot work you need to create conflict. This usually involves characters withholding information from each other or details deliberately kept in the dark. There is nothing wrong with that as long as you do it right, but that does not stop people like me from complaining. Said complaints require spoilers, but if you have seen movies and watched the trailers, you already know what is going to happen.
Damian is led to believe his new body was grown in a lab before the transfer. After the fact, he finds out the body was originally a person with a family who willingly gave himself to Albright to pay for his daughter’s cancer treatment. As a cover up, the family was told he drowned. The conflict of the story is built upon the idea that Albright tore a family apart to provide a service for Damian. All of it could have been avoided if both parties told each other the truth. If Albright told the family their Dad voluntarily sold his body to save his daughter, then Damian would not have been compelled to shut down his activities. But because the story needed a villain, our protagonists are in constant danger because they “know too much,” when knowing all of it beforehand would have saved everyone a lot of trouble.
Overall, there was nothing else wrong that requires mention. It can feel long at times as the story takes a while to get to the heart of the conflict, but if you do not mind slow-burn science fiction there is no problem. The acting was exceptional for most of the cast. I thought Matthew Goode was great as a cold and calculating mad scientist while Ben Kingsley made the most of his short screen time in both a physical and emotional performance.
Self/less is a good movie. It is not extraordinary or groundbreaking, but an acceptable distraction if you are looking for something to see this weekend. It has plenty of visuals that will satisfy any fan of good cinematography. On top of that, it is original sci-fi, something the industry is in dire need of.