From Jennifer Lopez's twisted, eye-popping journey inside the mind of a serial killer in "The Cell," to a lavish love letter to storytelling itself with "The Fall," the films of Tarsem Singh have demonstrated his admirable commitment to crafting some beautifully bonkers eye candy. Even "Immortals," Singh's dip into sword-and-sandal epics, managed to distinguish itself from the glut of "300" imitators with sheer visual panache. Whatever your opinions are about Tarsem Singh's films (and they've all demonstrated varying degrees of narrative quality that can never quite live up to their sense of style), you can never say they've been dull ... until now.
Tarsem's films have always felt indulgent but in a way that has always seemed indicative of his personal aesthetic as a filmmaker; his movies look like no one else's. And that's what makes the director's body-swapping sci-fi thriller "Self/less," so deeply disappointing. With its blandly anonymous style (stupid title punctuation aside), it might have been directed by anyone.
Ben Kingsley plays Damian Hale, a real estate mogul with a billion dollar empire but no family life to speak of, save for an estranged daughter (Michelle Dockery of "Downton Abbey") whose love he periodically attempts to buy, with little success. The film's first scene, in which the businessman invites a competitor to lunch just so he can demolish the young man's career face-to-face, clues us in that he's maybe not such a nice person. Damian also happens to be dying of cancer, and with little time left, he seeks the services of a mysterious organization run by a brilliant doctor named Albright (Matthew Goode, using his native British accent -- movie shorthand that he's not to be trusted). The good doctor offers a chance to undergo an experimental procedure known as "shedding," which involves transplanting a person's consciousness into a young, healthy synthetic body created in Albright's labs. It's a chance at immortality, all for the cool sum of $250 million. Done deal.
Hale (now played by Ryan Reynolds) has bought himself a brand new life, and aside from a bit of nausea and some disorientation ("death has some side effects," Albright cautions), one can't argue with the results. But once he's taken his hot new body out for a test drive (cue montage of Damian bedding a parade of beautiful young ladies) he starts having visions of a woman (Natalie Martinez) and young girl (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen) and a small farmhouse in the shadow of a water tower painted like a pumpkin. Though Albright assures him these visions are merely hallucinations resulting from his mind adapting to its new location, Damian investigates further (leading to the priceless scene in which Reynolds literally Googles "pumpkin." Great work, everyone), eventually discovering that his new body isn't so synthetic after all, and was once a real man.
Naturally, Damian gets himself entangled in the life his body's former owner left behind, taking actions which require him to be more ... what's the word? You know, when someone puts someone else's needs before their own? Don't tell me, it'll come to me, I'm sure of it.
"Self/less" has an intriguing premise (which admittedly owes a great deal to John Frankenheimer's 1966 thriller, "Seconds") and raises some interesting questions, but gets progressively more boneheaded as it goes along. Damian's newfound compassionate side isn't particularly believable considering what information the film provides about his nature. It's a little dubious that a man as supposedly ruthless as Damian would be concerned about the little people caught in the fallout of his actions, and screenwriters Alex and David Pastor never develop Damian enough pre-surgery for his later actions to carry any weight.
Ben Kingsley elevates any movie in which he appears, so it's to everyone's detriment that he disappears from this one 20 minutes in. For his part, Reynolds is perfectly fine, acting appropriately mournful and conflicted, though he doesn't attempt to even subtly adopt any of Kingsley's mannerisms, which only makes for a greater disconnect between the man Damian was and the one he ultimately becomes. Goode has demonstrated in films like "The Lookout" and "Stoker" that his sweet face makes for a great cover for villainy, though for some reason here he mostly seems to be channeling Jeremy Irons. Meanwhile, Victor Garber is dependably solid as Hale's longtime business partner, and Derek Luke manages to make a decent impression as the wing-man Damian picks up in his new life.
Throughout, Tarsem offers some decent action sequences, including a well-choreographed shootout in the second act and a mildly exciting car chase in the third. But for all the plot's eventual twists and turns, the most surprising thing about the film is that a director as distinctive and singular as Tarsem could have managed to make something so forgettable.