The first thing you should know about Self/less is that it is a movie about our growing cynicism with science. The second is that it is hugely infused with second life imagery. The third is that it is less a remake of the 1966 movie Seconds and more like a response to it.
The fourth, and probably first, is that it is a film by Tarsem, and the fifth and probably second, is that it stars Ryan Reynolds. But because Tarsem doesn't have much of a popular reputation, and Reynolds frequently struggles to have a good one, and because critics are lazy, Self/less "is" a remake of Seconds. Obviously.
You may have noticed that people have gone crazy in their ideas about dieting. Because of the obesity epidemic, everyone wants to figure out ways to make themselves thin, eat "healthier," the latter I put in quotations because a lot of what is considered in that light has dubious merit at best but anyone is willing to believe because we've let the art of science run away from us. And this just in, too: climate change! This is something we've been talking about for decades, literally decades, but every time someone wants to sensationalize it again, they'll act as if we haven't. In personal experience, I know that we've obliterated the mill industry that polluted much of our waterways, and we've seen dramatic results from that (the Androscoggin River used to be known for having the kind of fish you'd normally have found in early seasons of The Simpsons), and that's just one example of actual results from the efforts of environmentalists over the years. But still we hear only mindless doom and gloom. The people who are all for the doom and gloom message are happy to hear the climate change mantra. The people who aren't are usually assumed to be the ones causing it.
I'm not hear to talk about climate change, however, but Self/less, but it's appropriate to sidetrack a little because this is a movie that clearly very few people have bothered to understand. Go back and read how I began this review for starters. It should provoke thought. It's designed to provoke thought.
The plot concerns a real estate tycoon (it's no wonder that critics have particularly, and without any real merit, savaged this character, because the only real estate tycoon anyone knows these days is making hash work of his current presidential campaign) who is dying of cancer and looking for some reassurance. He's approached by a man who tells him he can start all over again with a new body. Naturally in his desperate straits the real estate tycoon ends up accepting the offer.
In most reviews, the real estate tycoon is described as a thoroughly unpleasant man. I don't see that in Ben Kingsley's actual performance. I see a man struggling to cope with his illness with as much dignity as possible. I see the straight-backed posture others have noted as a symptom of that. I see the man's questioning as a setup to how and why he begins to question the program that gives him his second chance. He's unsettled by the whole thing the first time he gets a glimpse of what's really going on. I see a man who pushed so long and so hard all his life that he never gave his actions a second thought. But he's about to.
Some critics argue that Tarsem is a director who doesn't really know what he's doing. He came up through music videos, and there's a special feature in the original home video release of his first film, The Cell, entitled "Style Before Substance," which is what I assume has become his reputation ever since. Except Tarsem has generally mastered his stories to a superior degree. As far as I can tell, he knows exactly what he's doing. Which can be intimidating. I suggest that critics who think he doesn't are more used to open-ended stories. Because Tarsem's conclusions are usually pretty definitive. In The Cell, for instance, Jennifer Lopez plays a psychologist who helps find the intended final victim of a serial killer, and finally has a breakthrough with the boy she was treating previously. In The Fall, the suicidal stuntman learns how to live again. In Immortals, the hero dies but his son rises. In Mirror Mirror, Snow White lives (I contend this last one was Tarsem's desperate bid to be understood in the easiest context possible, which was complicated by the fact that Snow White and the Huntsman was released around the same time).
How does Self/less end? As with an M. Night Shyamalan movie, perhaps that is a necessary thing to talk about, because otherwise you end up talking about anything but the complete story, and there have been reports that because the real estate tycoon seems so selfish, that the whole movie is better off being called that instead. But it's called Self/less for a reason. It reminds me very much of how Source Code ended. I thought and continue to think that Source Code is brilliant, but Self/less comes to as different conclusions as it does in relation to Seconds.
Fearful of science, and replete with second life images, but they all appear to be incidental. As with all of his movies, you have to pay attention to what Tarsem is doing. Once the real estate tycoon has gotten his new body, he is temporarily relocated to New Orleans, a whole city of second life images. After Katrina, it's far easier to see it that way, because even in its foundations it's a city about reshaping the landscape. It's also a sequence that is in some ways an answer to Birdman, a movie suffused with jazz. But it's a sequence that reclaims jazz, and reminds you, subtly, how jazz began, and yes, how it was repackaged for later consumption. Jazz, you may or may not know, began as an expression of slave culture, the same as the blues. It's one of the most remarkable artistic achievements of American culture, but in order to be accepted by American culture, it had to be introduced by white people to the masses (this is not to say the greats didn't include Louis Armstrong or Sarah Vaughan or many other great black performers), so that it also gave birth to big band and swing music, rock and roll, dance, hip hop.
Which is to say, if you understand why there's jazz in the movie, you understand Self/less itself a little better.
There are many other such images in the movies, and it's all very deliberate without being too forceful. More like being artful, in a way that Tarsem hasn't been in the past, so for me, although I will likely continue to consider The Fall his masterpiece, Self/less represents a considerable artistic evolution for the director, a show of further creative confidence.
The story, meanwhile, does in many ways mirror Seconds, a movie that does in fact seem to have been the source for a lot of its material. But if you research and/or see Seconds for yourself, you will discover a movie that perhaps explains better than presents Self/less. The villain in Self/less, in particular, might find a better presentation of his methods in the earlier movie, because at first it seems like the action in Self/less is otherwise a random manifestation to energize the movie. And yet the villain has carefully chosen subjects for his program so that they will be able to present themselves as formidable physical challenges, including the one the real estate tycoon was provided. If the real estate tycoon had been anyone else (the villain repeatedly tells him that he asks the wrong questions, but this is a mistake on the villain's part; it's not the questions but the answers that matter), he would have ended up like the character played by Derek Luke.
And let's talk Derek Luke for a minute. And Ben Kingsley. And Ryan Reynolds. These are all actors with a proven record of taking roles that speak directly to what Self/less is trying to say. Luke became famous for starring in Antwone Fisher, which among other things was Denzel Washington's directorial debut. Luke's casting was one of the things that helped define the movie, because it was clear that Washington had found, well, another actor much like himself, and Luke's further career so far has helped prove that. (He's also played Sean Combs, who has constantly reinvented himself, in Notorious.) Although while watching Self/less, Luke reminded me of Mos Def, who has gamely attempted to reinvent himself as an actor over the last decade after starting off in hip hop.
Anyway, Kingsley's career speaks for itself. He's a known chameleon. As far as I'm concerned, this is one of his few recent roles where he's allowed to reclaim his dignity (which as to the role itself, is an irony). So let's talk about Reynolds. Critics remembered that he's also got The Change-Up in his credits, in which he swaps bodies with Jason Bateman. As far as I'm concerned, the relevant connection is, rather, Smokin' Aces, the first time I saw Reynolds as a force to be reckoned with. Normally dismissed as one of the many movies trying to recreate Tarantino, Smokin' Aces reveals in its conclusions a second life puzzle, and forces a dramatic decision much like the one Reynolds once again embodies in Self/less, to end a series of morally reprehensible decisions when a spy's life is considered more valuable than his son's, and Reynolds decides the whole thing is as crazy as the assassins who have swarmed the preceding events (watch those guys for a Chris Pine performance that's unlike any other you've seen to date).
For me, all of that boils down to a movie that is far more interesting, and better, than anything you have previously heard about Self/less. Since it's quickly exiting theaters, this will be a movie you will have to rediscover later. Which is actually appropriate. As for why all the vitriol for Tarsem from critics, I assume it's because industry insiders like him, and not the outsiders like critics. But they'll come around. That's only appropriate, too. Second chances, right?