Dir: Tarsem Singh
Focus Features/Gramercy Pictures, 2015, USA
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Natalie Martinez, Ben Kingsley, Matthew Goode.
In 1966, John Frankenheimer directed Seconds (1966), a film that affected Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys to such an extent that he was determined Paramount had made the picture purely to fuck with his already LSD-addled mind. So perturbed was Wilson by the film that he allegedly steered clear of any cinema-going exploits until 1982 when he would brave E.T. the Extra Terrestrial (1982). I mention Seconds because it is a universally timeless and ultimately harrowing take on immortality that, even five decades later, still remains to be a genuinely powerful cautionary tale – as Wilson can surely attest to. I also mention Seconds because it is exactly what Self/less half-heartedly sets out to be – albeit in a safer and less-challenging milieu – but fails, quite badly.
Up until the 45-minute mark, Self/less proceeds if it were a second-rate reinterpretation of Seconds. It presents us with a wealthy New York business magnate, Damian Hayes (Kinglsey somewhat rehashing his performance as the Jewish crime-boss in Lucky Number Slevin ), who is beginning to enter the final stages of terminal cancer. However, he soon gets offered the ultimate chance to cheat death by an ultramodern and elite medical organisation headed by Professor Albright (Goode). The organisation promises a radical procedure called “shedding” that relocates the patient’s consciousness (via sticking their head inside what appears to be a snazzy washing machine drum) into that of a pre-prepared artificially grown younger body (Reynolds).
After the procedure, the new Hayes travels to Louisiana to start a new life. His newly rejuvenated self, parties, plays basketball, sleeps with piles of women and also eats jars of peanut butter, which is old body was allergic to. However, he soon begins to suffer a series of vivid hallucinations that he believes to be some form of memory; Albright prescribes him pills that will suppress them and suggests he goes to Hawaii to get over it. But Hayes soon realises that his new vessel was not artificially grown for the procedure as he was told, but did actually used to be a person called Mark – a man with a wife and daughter (that he has seen in his memories) who believe him to be dead. In a rather contrived plot device bordering on deus ex machina, Mark used to be a soldier allowing Hayes to be equipped with Bourne-like combat and spy skills.
From then on, the film ceases to be any bit as interesting as it may have initially been and reduces itself to a bland cat-and-mouse formula that is occasionally broken up by unconvincing sentimentality and predictable would-be twists. The film proceeds in its dull malaise without any sense of visual spectacle (but for a well-staged car chase) and without ever opening up the film’s central concept of potential immortality right until its excruciatingly over-idealistic ending. For the time that it would be relevant to the story, the film even fails to properly explore the issues that may occur with an old soul trapped inside a young body. But before we even have time to mull over such existential problems the central character might be facing, the film is inclined to machine-gun you with bland action set-pieces.
Reynolds, yet again, appears to be well cast, but here he seems to be stuck in a film that is either trying so hard to take itself seriously before having properly developed its own ideas, or is simply too afraid to attempt anything remotely new. After mega flops like The Green Lantern (2011) and R.I.P.D. (2013) (and from its paltry box-office earning, this film), Reynolds could well have been looking at becoming a Hollywood has-been. However, films like the dark and quirky The Voices (2014) and the upcoming Mississippi Grind (2015) and Deadpool (2016) prove that he still knows a good project when he sees one. One can understand the potential a film like Self/less may offer, but unfortunately this one has proven to be another dead-end for the actor.
Self/less’s exploration of immortality is superficial and never demands the degree of contemplation which Seconds imposes on its audience so astonishingly. It might seem a tad unfair to disparage Self/less based on its overt similarities to Seconds, but it has quite clearly has just borrowed a germ of that film’s universally fascinating principal idea and royally screwed the pooch with it by reducing it to unimaginative mediocrity.
If you didn’t get the message: watch Seconds instead.
- Liam Hathaway