Friday, 21 August 2015

Movie Review: Self/Less (2015)



If I had to point to a singular reason why I love speculative fiction as much as I do, it’d have to be the inherent freedom of it all: Within the confines of the umbrella that is SF, you are capable of writing about pretty much anything the human imagination can conjure up. The personification of dreams going to a convention for serial killers? Done. A go-go dancer who uses a machine gun leg to kill zombies? No worries. A man in a magical telephone box that travels through time and space? That story’s been going on for over fifty years now. A piece of burnt bread philosophizing about the nature of life, death and the pursuit of happiness? You can trust Japan to deliver on that front. So, when a film comes out with a pretty high concept idea in its framework, it will immediately grab my attention. Whether or not it can hold my attention for the running time is another matter. This is Self/Less.

The plot: Damian (Ben Kingsley) is a wealthy businessman that has been diagnosed with cancer, and he doesn’t have a lot of time left. After getting in contact with Professor Albright (Matthew Goode), he discovers a way that he can cheat death: ‘Shedding’ his old body and transferring his mind into another that’s been grown in a lab (Ryan Reynolds). As Damian settles into his new body and new life, he starts having hallucinations about memories that he didn’t have before. This leads him to discovering that his new body nor the good Professor are all that they appear to be.

This is a concept that has a lot of possibilities for story and visual ideas, as is the case for most media that discuss the want to live forever. However, neither the director nor the writers provide enough initial optimism to assume that those possibilities will be cashed in. Tarsem Singh, while definitely being a visually talented director, has a habit of taking on high concept scripts and not really putting enough thought into what is expounded upon to make them work; whether it’s the sagging attempt at criminal psychology in The Cell or the lame adaptation of Snow White with Mirror Mirror, his track record isn’t all that good. Add to that the Pastor brothers, who seem to specialize in stock horror film plots, and things are looking bleak already. Well, this doesn’t tread far from their usual territory, although credit to the Pastors for at least giving us a decent, if well-trodden, concept to start with; the film itself is visually well-presented and contains some nice fluid camerawork, and while Tarsem has previously shown the ability to make up for weaker writing with stunning visuals in The Fall, this is nowhere near that level nor is it good enough to save this film in any way.

I’ll admit, the core idea of body swapping as a means of living forever could make a genuinely amazing film: Philosophizing about what constitutes ‘life’, literal inner conflicts like a Venn diagram of Nightmare In Silver and Me, Myself & Irene that could show off Reynolds’ acting chops, or simply posing the question about whether life is even worth repeating; the possibilities here are many and mighty. Such a shame that all we seem to get here is a lot of hand-waving of the deeper and potentially unsettling questions surrounding the concept and tantalizing of better scenes than what we actually end up with. Any ethical questions that are brought up by Albright and his methods are completely wasted for two main reasons: One, the film keeps considering his actions to be bad and disregard the very clear shades of grey concerning them; and two, the way said actions are explained, for the most part, make him out to have a better moral compass than our hero; that is, unless you think donating your organs to science is inherently evil. Sure, once things are revealed later on like the reason behind Damian’s hallucinations, Albright starts looking more like the villain that he’s being painted as… but in doing so, they also make Damian out to be a bit amoral as well.

Even discarding Damian’s role as our lead, this is still a classic example of an idiot plot where the only reason things are happening as they do are because all the characters are stupid: Conclusions that are jumped to for no good reason, nonsensical decisions and overall lack of thought put into the world-building to make the central impossible thing believable. Sufficient character drama could have negated the effects of the weak sci-fi plot that contains the typical plot holes that come from first-time SF writers, but apparently Tarsem thought that the dramatic scenes were so dull that he needed to inject random action scenes into the film to keep things interesting. Credit where it’s due on the fights, as they are decently choreographed and shot, and they do provide some reprieve from the largely boring dramatic scenes, but they also clash hideously with the tone of the rest of the film and feel like pieces of a miscellaneous 80’s action movie screenplay were spliced into it. Frankly, I would prefer far less car chases and more scenes involving a girl being taught how to swim, given how the latter made for one of the rare moments that actually got me to connect with the characters, however short-lived.

So, the writing is a bust and the characters are badly conceived. But it seems like at least a couple of people in the cast were aware of such things and tried to soldier on regardless as the acting here is pretty good. Kingsley may only have part of the first act to himself, stunt top billing at its most useless, but he definitely gives the pre-Shedding Damian the air of someone who wants to do more with his life. Professor Albright may be a poorly-handled bad guy but Goode gives a performance packed with sliminess that could have served him better with a more over-the-top character; as it stands, though, he at least works well with the other actors on-screen for better or for worse. Reynolds, even though his recent track record between this and Woman In Gold isn’t lending much credibility to his acting, does well at portraying the older man experiencing life through a younger skin in the beginning. Of course, it helps that the only real character trait we get for Damian as a whole is his snarky attitude, something that Reynolds specializes in.

All in all, as much as I try to avoid echoing the exact sentiments of other critics as best I can, I can’t help but agree with them: This is all potential and no pay-off. The premise could have made for at least a good sci-fi experience, but the writing is weak and fails at most forms of characterization and the visuals aren’t up to Tarsem’s pedigree, meaning that they aren’t capable of salvaging said writing. This doesn’t induce anger as much it does disappointment and, as anyone who has ever been told off by their parents will tell you, that is effectively worse. Namely, I’m exceptionally disappointed that we didn’t get to see Reynolds talking with the voices in his head, given how the premise here could have gone, but as the Deadpool film inches closer to release, chances are I’ll get to see that soon enough. You know, after seeing so many films that have either been offensive or insulting to watch, it’s weirdly refreshing to watch something that’s just plain bad. It ranks lower than Seventh Son, which may actually be worse than this in terms of writing but it at least reached the level of laughably bad. However, while missed opportunities may annoy me, they don’t annoy me nearly as much as Johnny Depp failing miserably at being charming in Mortdecai.

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