Ben Kingsley plays a New York real estate mogul who pays big bucks to have his consciousness microwaved into Ryan Reynolds‘ body in “Self/less,” but the real reheating of leftovers has already occurred: this new science-fiction thriller borrows the foundation of a much better film — John Frankenheimer’s 1966 “Seconds” — and strips it of any larger meaning.
Director Tarsem Singh, previously known for such art-direction extravaganzas as “The Fall” and “Immortals,” seems determined to prove that he can handle more mundane material that doesn’t call for as much visual flair. The film he has crafted from the script by David Pastor and Àlex Pastor remains light on the filigree, yes, but Singh’s earlier films at least offered diversions for the eyes when the stories got bogged down.
The best that can be said for “Self/less” is that, unlike so many recent films that have shot in Louisiana strictly for the tax breaks, this is a movie that squeezes New Orleans for every last drop of local color it can, from jazz bands to Mardi Gras parade floats. (Even chicory coffee plays a key role in the plot.)
New York real estate magnate Damian (Kingsley) is close to death; his wealth can no more fix his body than it can repair his relationship with his estranged daughter Claire (Michelle Dockery of “Downton Abbey,” struggling with a Yank accent). Damian receives a mysterious card that hooks him up with Albright (Matthew Goode), whose company specializes in “shedding,” a process by which one’s mind and memories can be transferred from one body to another.
The company helps Damian fake his own death and then sticks him into an MRI built for two with a new body (Reynolds) that Albright claims has been grown in a lab to be physically perfect. After the transfer and weeks of speech and physical therapy (during which Reynolds makes no effort to impersonate Kingsley), Damian is released into the world with a new identity and a new lease on life. When he forgets to take his regular daily medicine, however, he starts to have blurry mental flashbacks that make him realize that his new body had a previous tenant who may not be willing to surrender their shared brain.
The best science fiction comments on our own world, and “Seconds” (which also dealt with a shadowy company that helped rich men find new lives) dealt with issues of identity and of redemption. “Self/less” makes a few stabs at bigger notions regarding second chances and accepting one’s own mortality, but it’s more interested in sending Damian on the run with the understandably upset wife (Natalie Martinez, “End of Watch”) and daughter (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen) of Reynolds’ previous incarnation.
The story is standard fugitive stuff, and the personal connections are severely underwritten; dads are either perfect or distant, and wives are compassionate or conniving. (It’s an in-joke that two principal female characters are named for Kim Novak’s two identities in “Vertigo.”)
About the best that can be said about the sluggish “Self/less” is that it’s a better Ryan Reynolds body-switching movie than “The Change-Up”; still, you’re better off seeking out “Seconds” — or heck, “All of Me” — instead.