Friday, July 10, 2015.SELF/LESS. Written by David Pastor and Alex Pastor. Music by Dudu Aram and Antonio Pinto. Directed by Tarsem Singh. Running time: 116 minutes. Rated PG in B.C.
THE OLD MAN GIVES AWAY the game in the film's first reel. Confronting his adult daughter, a New York community organizer (Michelle Dockery), billionaire urban developer Damian Hale demands her full attention.
"The revolution can wait, Claire!" Indeed it can.
Just as politicians promise change on the campaign trail, then produce little more than disappointment in office, director Tarsem Singh's science-fiction thriller Face/less suggests far more than it delivers. Its promise is contained in the line delivered by the picture's high-tech tempter, Dr. Albright (Matthew Goode).
"Do you feel immortal?"
For all of his wealth, the 68-year-old Hale is feeling less than hearty. Terminally ill with cancer, he has less than six months to live when the mysterious Albright comes into his life. Hale is introduced to the latest medical miracle, a process called "shedding."
For a mere $250 million (US), Hale can shed his diseased body, relocating his consciousness into a new one especially grown for the purpose. Secrecy is essential, though, so the old entrepreneur must fake his own death in public.
Singh's screenplay, by the Spanish writing team of David and Alex Pastor, tantalizes us with an interesting basic idea. There are real possibilities in the tale of the egregiously rich extending their lives, not just by harvesting the organs of the impoverished — a harsh reality in today's world — but with full-body replacements. Is this the next stage in the establishment of the new corporate feudalism?
Following his resurrection in Albright's secret laboratory, Hale (now played by Ryan Reynolds) undergoes weeks of therapy to adjust to his new body. He's warned that he will experience occasional mild hallucinations for the first year, and is issued red capsules to deal with the effects.
The red pills represent reality, while the blue pills are . . . oh wait, that was a different picture. Did I mention that the director is recycling some familiar movie themes here?
Perhaps this would be a good time to pause and consider the brief career of Tarsem Singh. A wannabe Wachowski by way of Ridley Scott — yes, his background includes TV ads and music videos — he has a tendency to throw it all at the screen to see what sticks.
The Indian-born Singh made his feature debut in 2000 with The Cell, a virtual-reality thriller that starred Jennifer Lopez as a child psychologist who enters her patients' dreams. The Fall (2006) brought to life the tales of a suicidal male Scheherazade, played by Lee Pace. Singh repurposed Greek myth for his first 3D feature, Immortals (2011), and took a run at the Grimms' Snow White with Mirror Mirror (2012), the one with Julia Roberts as the Evil Queen.
Self/less, the least fantastic film he's yet done, is a disappointing throwback to the man-on-the-run adventures that so appealed to restless teen audiences in the 1980s. But I'm getting ahead of his story.
In the current movie, our sort-of hero has just been fitted out with his new studly identity, and installed in a luxury pied-à-terre within walking distance of street musicians, friendly natives and available women. It's the perfect location for him to acquire a black friend named Anton (Derek Luke), shoot some hoops and segue into an montage of him pigging out on sex, red pills and peanut butter.
About those hallucinations. More than a side-effect, they turn out to be Mark, the previous resident of Damian's new meat suit, asserting his presence. Violating doctor's orders, he sets out to find Mark, who has a wife named Madeline (Natalie Martinez) and a daughter Anna (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen) in Middle America.
Ah, but the not-so-good Dr. Albright's minions are hot on his trail. "You thought you were buying a new car, and found out it had a few miles on it," scoffs their leader, just before discovering that our Mark was an all-American military badass. With his family in danger, he takes out the five-man retrieval team with extreme prejudice.
Revolution is indeed on hold. All of the fine possibilities inherent in the tale can wait for another time. What remains is something like a made-for-TV movie.
On second thought, let me take that back.
Self/less insults the quality of writing that we've come to expect from the best of today's television. It plays like a rejected teleplay for Dollhouse, the 2009-2010 Joss Whedon series that seriously grappled with the very issues that Singh toys with so ineptly.
Yes, there is much action and more plot twists to come, but there's nothing we haven't seen before. There's an explosive finale that recalls Jean-Claude Van Damme in John Woo's Hard Target (1993), and some endangered-daughter moments that seem based on Liam Neeson's recent career.
Brazilian musicians Dudu Aram and Antonio Pinto contribute a spooky electronic score that sounds very 1980s to my aging ears. Perhaps it is an attempt to bring some period excitement to the recycled 1960s plot elements, and distract attention from how dramatically the two Damians differ.
Apparently basing his performance on The Simpsons' Mr. Burns, actor Kingsley's Damian is a self-centred hard case with a mile-wide mean streak. Actor Reynolds shows us a kinder, gentler Damian, hedonistically selfish but soulful, the better to elicit sympathy when he goes on his killing spree(s).
Claire Hale's revolution, unfortunately, will have to wait for the next season of television's Continuum, of Orphan Black, or perhaps actress Michelle Dockery's next story arc as Lady Mary Crowley in Downton Abbey.
The above is an original Reeling Back review by Michael Walsh, published on July 10, 2015. For additional information on this website please visit my FAQ.
Afterword: Although he's done serious work, including director Atom Egoyan's controversial child-abuse drama The Captive (2014), Vancouver-born Ryan Reynolds may be best known for his comic-book movies. He was featured in 2004's Blade:Trinity (2004) and had the title role in Green Lantern (2011). In 2009, he played Wade Wilson in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, a role he'll reprise early next year as the title character in the filmed-in-Vancouver Deadpool. My favourite Reynolds's role to date remains Andrew Paxton, assistant to New York publishing house editor Margaret Tate (Sandra Bullock) in The Proposal (2009). A romantic comedy, it was all the more delightful because it featured Reynolds, a Canadian, playing an American who is coerced into a marriage-of-convenience by his Canadian boss, Amerca's sweetheart Bullock, so she can avoid deportation.