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Universal // PG-13 // November 10, 2015
List Price: $29.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Tyler Foster | posted November 11, 2015 | E-mail the Author
On one hand, there are things about Self/Less that seem iffy: it's a B-sci-fi thriller about a mind-transfer process called "shedding", starring a recognizable but not particularly reassuring cast of actors who tend to find themselves in misfires or direct-to-video schlock. On the other, the movie has a very strong director in the form of Tarsem Singh, whose film The Fall is recognized as a modern classic. Combine those two elements and what do you get? A perfectly middle-of-the-road thriller, one which delivers exactly what's advertised on the box in an efficient and economically stylish manner that is both reasonably respectable and also entirely unsurprising.

Ben Kingsley plays Damian Hale, a billionaire real estate tycoon who has just discovered that his cancer is inoperable. Although he is resigned to his impending death, as well as the unresolved distance between himself and his daughter Claire (Michelle Dockery), he is tipped off about a Professor Albright (Matthew Goode), who introduces him to "shedding", which would allow Hale's mind to be placed inside a manufactured body, a new shell for Hale's existing mind. Hale agrees to the procedure, and a few days later, he's finding his physical strength again as Edward (Ryan Reynolds), whose young and attractive body allows Damian to have the kind of fun he hasn't had in years. Damian is ready to embrace life as Edward when a slip-up with the mysterious medication Albright has prescribed results in a powerful psychological episode that seems suspiciously like memories of another person's life.

If there's any one thing wrong with Self/Less, it's that the concept of the movie seems as if it could lend itself to something far more interesting than it actually does. There are similarities between Self/Less and the 1966 John Frankenheimer movie Seconds, and those who go in hoping to find an exploration of identity or the human soul are going to be disappointed. There's no commending Self/Less for not having such limited ambition, but it's also a little unfair to ding the movie for something it's never attempting to accomplish. The film, as written by Alex and David Pastor, appears to aspire to nothing more than being a fun sci-fi thriller, and while the movie does feel like a waste of a concept, there's something to be said for setting a goal and sticking to it, and letting ambition exceed one's grasp.

Although Singh does not bring the kind of flair to the film as he did The Fall or even his earlier thriller The Cell, there is a slickness and clarity to Self/Less that can be attributed to Tarsem. The film was relatively inexpensive at $26m, but it tends to look as good as a bigger movie, occupying a number of mansions and creating a visually striking lab where Albright works. Edward is afflicted by flashes of memory, a painfully familiar plot device, but Singh's first-person visions actually feel like memories in a way that many other films fail to capture. There are also a number of surprisingly well-done action sequences, including a shootout in a burning house, a fistfight on a driveway, and a short car chase on a single strip of roadway in the middle of the night. It may not be a highlight of his resume, but Singh arguably acquits himself better than, say, Alex Proyas did on I, Robot.

Ryan Reynolds has long been an actor who clearly has charisma to spare, but who few filmmakers seem to be able to use right. Although Self/Less could probably use a touch more humor, he gives a good and relatively understated performance here, including some surprisingly emotional beats late in the movie. Although there is very little done to "connect" the performances, Kingsley is also enjoyable in his brief appearance as the older Damian, and character actor Victor Garber has a major role as Damian's friend and business partner Martin O'Neill, who has a surprisingly great arc that doesn't follow the stereotypical beats that one might expect. The only real weak link in the cast is Matthew Goode, whose quiet calculation reads as bland. Perhaps a better actor as antagonist would have given Self/Less the juice it needed to bump it up from "okay" to "good", but it's a movie that exists through circular justification. It will probably satisfy the few people will be intrigued enough to see it, but if it had never existed, nobody would miss it.

The Blu-ray
Universal brings the film to Blu-ray with one of its posters essentially intact, with the addition of a blue filter, featuring Reynolds brandishing a gun, and Kingsley in shadow behind him. The single-disc release comes in a standard Viva Elite Blu-ray case, with a flyer inside listing the UltraViolet Digital Copy code, and a glossy slipcover for the outer case featuring nearly identical artwork.

The Video and Audio
Much like the film itself, there's a slick handsomeness to this disc's 2.39:1 1080p AVC video presentation and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound presentation. The film is generally a little subdued, as if every day was overcast, and areas like Albright's laboratory have a specific monotone look to them in cold, steely grays and blues. However, when Edward is hit by a vision, they appear amped, especially crisp and often slightly oversaturated, giving them a real impact on the viewer. The transfer handles darkness with skill, and no artifacting or banding intrudes on the image. The film has plenty of action that gets the surround channels going, and some of the memories provide interesting opportunities for the sound. Music is nice and crisp, and dialogue sounds fine throughout. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing and French and Spanish subtitles are also included.

The Extras
First up, there is an audio commentary by director Tarsem Singh. Singh is an enthusiastic commentator, promising at the beginning that he's ready to talk all the way through to the end, and he basically lives up to his word. Unlike some recent commentaries, Singh really does let what's on the screen determine his subject, leaping back and forth from overall story concerns to performance details and then back to specific anecdotes about a given moment or day. He has plenty of praise for the entire cast, and speaks occasionally to his style and what he hoped to bring to the film.

Three featurettes are also included. "Inside Self/Less" (6:37) is the basic making-of featurette, an overall look at the production that touches on what inspired the story and details of Kingsley and Reynolds' performances. "Shedding" (2:27) goes a sliver more in-depth on the film's conceit, and whether or not anything similar would ever be scientifically possible. Finally, "On the Run: The Action of Self/Less" (6:46), which is identified on the packaging as a Blu-ray exclusive, examines director Tarsem Singh's approach when filming the movie's various action setpieces. None of these are particularly revelatory, but they're also so short that there's no reason not to watch them.

Self/Less feels like a film that director Tarsem Singh signed onto with the goal of doing a good, clean job, and he succeeded, to the point where Self/Less is almost completely neutral. It's a fine-looking, decently acted, modestly thrilling, lightly entertaining thriller that doesn't make much of an impact but is never quite bad, beyond maybe squandering a deeper possibility or interpretation of its central idea. A perfect rental.

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