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'Self/less' is an un/inspired riff on heady ideas

Ben Kingsley becomes Ryan Reynolds in a thoughtful but turgid and unimaginative sci-fi thriller.

Here is one of the too few striking images in "Self/less," starring Ryan Reynolds.Focus Features

Tarsem Singh
Stars: Ryan Reynolds, Natalie Martinez
Rating: PG-13
2 (out of 5) Globes

“Self/less” is about body robbing, so in a way perhaps it can be forgiven for lack of originality. It’s “Seconds,” the John Frankenheimer classic in which a middle-aged lump is remade into Rock Hudson, crossed with “Freejack,” the non-classic where Anthony Hopkins tries to become Emilio Estevez. Later there will be chunks of “The 6th Day,” the forgotten (but semi-nifty) Arnold Schwarzenegger cloning thriller. In it, Ben Kingsley’s Damian, wealthy and dying, becomes Ryan Reynolds, after a miraculous, shady company (run by a creepy Brit, of course, played by Matthew Goode) offers a radical procedure that transfers consciousness from one body to the next. But there’s a catch, because there’s always a catch, because science, in the movies, can never just be awesome.

The cribbing from others isn’t the problem; in fact, they’re the best parts — that or Kingsley’s unplaceable, maybe-Noo Yawk accent. It’s when the script tries to do something more than mix and match influences that it reveals the true paucity of ideas. The early stretch is acutely, painfully aware of the anxieties fueling its premise: that the body is stupid — a prison that will one day fail us. Kingsley’s Damian is grouchy and self-hating, but even in his misery you can sense someone desperate to cling to every last second of life, freaking out even when he’s strapped to a machine and knows he’s seconds from a new, albeit mid-30s bod.

Once “Self/less” makes the switch, it becomes an unimaginative tale of an unimaginative person. Reynolds’ Damian, who’s considerably more bland than Kingsley’s Damian, can’t think of anything to do but bang chicks and play basketball. He’s also suffering bizarre hallucinations that seem to come from another life. Some truly weird Googling later (including the phrase “pumpkin water tower,” which is more popular than you may think), he learns the company is engaged in some jiggery-pokery. Damian also learns that he has some Jason Bourne moves, because those movies are popular too.


One can tease heady ideas out of “Self/less” — about our fear of mortality, about fear of the dissolution of the self, about self-preservation turning to solipsism, even about wealth running roughshod over those without it. They’re notions best discussed after, or thought about during, given how slowly and wearily it’s heading its so-so climax. (It does ultimately wind up in one genuinely daring end point, but the film heads there with so little anguish one wonders if the screenwriters thought it all the way through.) If you didn’t catch the director’s credit you may spend the majority of this visually uninspired number wishing they’d hired someone with relative flamboyance, if maybe not one as out-there as Tarsem Singh, the creator of eyesores like “The Fall” and “Immortals.” As it happens, Tarsem Singh is the director, and it’s not clear who doped him up but regardless “Self/less” is unmistakable from the drab workmanlike touch inherent in the git-r-done cinema of Alan Taylor (“Thor: The Dark World,” “Terminator: Genisys”).

There is one brief stretch of sensory overload that plays like a cruel tease: a dizzying montage of Damian 2.0’s bachelor life cut to the beat of an overworking drum squadron. It’s the only sequence that seems even within the same universe as Singh’s wheelhouse. Otherwise he can do nothing with a sleepy car chase, and can’t even get much color out of the orange flames funneling out of a regularly deployed flamethrower. There’s so much talent and narrative and thematic possibility in “Self/less”’ favor that it often feels like it went out of its way to be forgettable. No future movie will be ripping it off.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge
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