Self/less wants you to believe it's a high tech sci-fi story, a "what-if" scenario about body swapping and eternal youth for the rich. It eschews much of that and settles instead on being a heavy-handed, yet competent, thriller.
Self/less focuses on Damian (Ben Kingsley), a New York building magnate and dying billionaire. He has some regrets in life: He hasn't been a great father to his daughter, Claire, preferring to show up at her workplace with big checks and insults about her fair housing non-profit. As cancer eats away at him, he finds a shadowy doctor (Matthew Goode) running a seemingly impossible clinic — that, for a huge fee — will transfer his mind to a healthy, younger body (Ryan Reynolds).
Of course, there are caveats. Damian is forbidden to have any contact with people from his "former" life. And the whole beautiful new body routine comes with some quirks, including the need to take daily pills to keep his mind stable, lest he starts seeing visions of a mysterious woman, Madeline (Natalie Martinez) and a young girl, Anna (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen).
Self/less isn't the smartest or most original take on the body-swap storyline (for something along those lines, see the recently released Advantageous on Netflix). But it is a big, action-y thriller that moves fast and offers plenty of twists and turns. I saw a few of them coming (this is not the most subtle movie), but thankfully, director Tarsem Singh knows his movie's strengths, and Self/less never stays too long in any one moment to bask in revelations.
Self/less does want to lecture a little bit on medicine and on the nature of haves and have-nots in our society. It drives the point with a heavy hand, and might not be the most effective way to handle the matter, as Damian's life is presented as a sort of awesome fantasy. He has money, power, respect, beautiful women falling all over him, etc. Watching Damian enjoy the hell out of the good life makes you want to be rich, not lament that everything sucks for everyone else.
The movie is actually very moving when it takes its lead foot off the male-fantasy gas pedal for a second and actually takes the time to say a bit about parenthood and family responsibility. Damian loves his daughter very much, even though he's terrible at showing it. He bonds with the young Anna, in one of the sweetest scenes in the movie, and, through his ordeal, seems to learn a thing or two about being a good father. This goes a long way to endear Damian beyond a sort of rich asshole archetype, and makes for a nice break from the relentless action of the film.
But that sweet message is at the core of an explosive, violent thriller, and sometimes the two don't mix well. At one point, my suspension of disbelief was obliterated, not by the sci-fi mind transfer tech, but by the fact that a sweet, loving father figure would cold-bloodedly murder so many people in full view of a wide-eyed six-year-old.
Self/less wants its hero to be a kind, gentle man and a beefy action hero all at once, and that can be done — but that takes a great deal more nuance than what is presented here. The movie would've done well to at least acknowledge what was going on, or to have Damian make some attempt to explain things to Anna after the fact.
Anna, for her part, may be the secret highlight of Self/less. She's genuinely funny — a smart, sassy little girl who doesn't know she's in a slightly goofy action movie and acts for all the world like an actual child. Kinchen isn't just a cute kid, she's a soulful little performer, with the uncanny ability to read her on-screen parents' emotions. She and Kingsley are light years ahead of Reynolds and Goode's more one-note turns.
But then again, I don't think audiences are really going to flock to Self/less for Oscar-caliber acting. It wants to leave the audience with a strong moral message, but shoots itself in the foot somewhat by overemphasizing violence over Damian's newly acquired daddy skills. When read as a high-octane action movie, Self/less has its moments. Just don't think too hard about any of them, or you, too, might need pills to keep it all together.