Friday, July 10, 2015

self/less: Absorbing sci-fi analysis of identity

self/less (2015) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for violence, dramatic intensity and mild sensuality

By Derrick Bang

It’s an old, old lesson: When something seems too good to be true ... it is.

At first blush, scripters David and Àlex Pastor have concocted what feels like a sinister medical thriller, of the sort that put physician-turned-novelist Robin Cook on the map back in the late 1970s. Director Tarsem Singh keeps the tone atmospheric during a first act that raises all sorts of intriguing questions, with the New Orleans setting adding an unsettling, almost-but-not-quite indiscernible layer of tension.

Having finally discovered that the woman (Natalie Martinez) and little girl (Jaynee-Lynne
Kinchen) in his odd visions are actual people, Damian (Ryan Reynolds) tries to make
sense of an already fantastic situation that has gotten even stranger. Trouble is, plenty
of people have no interest in allowing him the luxury of such answers...
Then — also much like a novel by Cook or Michael Crichton — things shift into a different gear, and suddenly we’re in pure Hitchcock territory: our hearts engaged with a protagonist pursued by shadowy unknowns, who cannot — for reasons related to his plight — turn to official authorities.

All of which is even more interesting because we’re not sure we should like our not-so-innocent hero.

The result is an economical thriller that benefits from the Pastor brothers’ carefully crafted narrative. They avoid serious mistakes, and everything holds together pretty well. And if we’re able to anticipate a conclusion which, in the third act, seems increasingly inevitable ... well, that’s okay. It’s the proper way to end this story, and we exit the theater quite satisfied.

Billionaire New York City-based industrialist Damian Hale (Ben Kingsley) has made no allies on his way to the top, and he still enjoys crushing anybody who gets in his way. He’s a selfish, arrogant man with no family connections, having long ago lost touch with his activist daughter, Claire (Michelle Dockery), even though her volunteer-staffed office is only a few blocks away in the same city.

Damian’s only real connection is with lifelong friend and right-hand man Martin O’Neil (Victor Garber): also the only person who knows that his boss is close to losing the one battle he cannot win, against the cancer that is eating him alive.

But an unexpected option exists, courtesy of a clandestine organization led by Albright (Matthew Goode), who offers a radical form of immortality to hand-picked clients with the wealth and resources to make it practical. Albright has developed the technology to transfer an individual’s mind into a new, lab-cloned body. The process, dubbed “shedding” — in a nod to the way reptiles shed their skin — can put Damian into the body of a healthy male at the prime of life.

He jumps at the opportunity.

But the process is illegal, of course, and the catch is that Damian Hale cannot return to his old life. As far as the world is concerned, he has died; Albright supplies a new identity, carefully funded by Damian’s fortune, and “Edward” begins his new existence in New Orleans. The transition is euphoric: a fast car, faster women and the casual vigor that comes from a well-toned body in excellent condition.

We’ve been down this road before, most notably in director John Frankenheimer’s under-appreciated 1966 film noir thriller Seconds — boasting marvelously moody cinematography by the amazing James Wong Howe — which finds disillusioned New York banker John Randolph “resurrected” as Malibu-based painter Rock Hudson (unexpectedly solid in a rare dramatic role).

Things don’t end well for that film’s hero; we quickly suspect the same will be true here, particularly because Damian starts having visions. Albright smiles benignly, offering the smoothly rehearsed explanation that these are simply side-effects of his brain adjusting to a new and wholly foreign physical form. Besides, the visions can be held at bay by one-a-day tablets.

Irritatingly, Albright never offers more than a week’s worth of these capsules at a time.

But Damian didn’t claw his way to the top of the business ladder by being passive; new body regardless, he still has his wits, intelligence and self-preservational reluctance to accept anything at face value. On top of which, the “visions” are starting to feel more like flashbacks, with vivid impressions of a young woman (Natalie Martinez) and her little daughter (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen).

And Damian can’t help wondering: Did Albright really grow this younger, healthier body in a lab? Or did it come from ... somewhere else?

Reynolds, having wasted his initial 15 minutes of fame on high-concept junk such as Green Lantern, The Change-Up and R.I.P.D., has wisely scaled back to smarter, smaller and more thoughtful roles. He’s reasonably believable as an “old soul” both delighted and somewhat weirded out by new skin; every so often Reynolds glances at himself in a way that indicates fresh surprise. (“Wow ... haven’t felt that way for a long time.”)

Reynolds also displays enough physical presence to sell the unexpected rough stuff that results from Damian’s continuing search for answers.

On the other hand, he’s not successful when trying to sell more intimate moments. Reynolds never seem sincerely tender; there’s always an air of smug exasperation behind such efforts, as if he assumes that people should know what he’s thinking, merely by glancing at his rather bland features.

The British-born Goode, on the other hand, is quite chilling. He makes Albright the stuff of casual nightmares: a soft-spoken academic who, at first blush, radiates calm authority and scientific brilliance ... qualities you’d love to see in the surgeon assigned to your case. But each fresh encounter with Albright makes Damian warier; the man’s explanations feel too rehearsed, his manner more and more like a pose.

Singh extracts a great performance from Goode, recognizing that truly powerful evil never needs to raise its voice. We grow to dread any occasion that might prompt a smile from Albright.

Kingsley is marvelous in his brief role: note-perfect as a ruthless, rapacious businessman. Garber, always adept at projecting warmth and compassion, is the epitome of longstanding loyalty; Derek Luke is cheerfully laid-back as Anton, Damian’s first new friend in his guise as Edward, when the two meet during a pick-up basketball game.

Dockery, a regular on television’s Downtown Abbey, is sadly under-utilized. I kept expecting the script to grant her character a larger role in these events, but it never happens.

Martinez, a busy TV actress perhaps recognized from Under the Dome and Secrets and Lies, does pretty well with a really tough part; this woman is expected to absorb a lot, and Martinez makes it fairly convincing. Young Kinchen is cute as a bug, and a total scene-stealer: absolutely natural in front of the camera.

Composers Dudu Aram and Antonio Pinto deliver a moody score that amplifies the story’s unsettling tone, and production designer Tom Foden makes excellent use of the New Orleans setting. Albright’s lab, in particular, is inventively unusual and more than a little disturbing.

Singh and editor Robert Duffy keep things moving, in part to prevent us from scrutinizing broader-picture concerns. Ultimately, this premise has the flaw that plagued The Stepford Wives and other sci-fi conspiracy thrillers; we eventually realize that Albright’s apparently sizable roster of continuing clients couldn’t possibly “behave” and obediently keep silent, particularly not when, ah, “issues” keep cropping up.

Better, therefore, to assume that Damian is one of the first to undergo the shedding process. That much credibility, we can surrender.

Singh cut his teeth on music videos and TV commercials, and he clearly enjoys messing with perceived reality in his occasional big-screen efforts, both from a nasty point of view (2000’s The Cell) and a child’s unrestrained imagination (2006’s incredibly audacious, must-be-seen The Fall). He’s right at home with self/less — ingenious title, by the way — and while this modest film isn’t likely to attract much attention amid its noisier summer competition, it deserves a long and healthy home video afterlife.

No comments:

Post a Comment