The body swap thriller “Self/less” sounds like mediocre midsummer fare, dumped on a weekend between blockbusters. It’s got a tired conceit, one that’s been spent since the ’80s, and what’s up with that weird slash in the title?
And yet the film is a lot better than it should be, mostly thanks to helmer Tarsem Singh (“The Cell”), an accomplished visual stylist who has a way of elevating mediocre material by enveloping it in memorable imagery.
The story finds New York real estate mogul Damian (Ben Kingsley) dying from cancer and doing what all fabulously wealthy, egotistical individuals would probably love to do: signing up for a radical scientific treatment that will transfer his consciousness into a younger body (Ryan Reynolds).
Eventually, the joy of bringing young women home from the club and limberly shooting hoops without any pain gives way to the reality that the circumstances behind the procedure masterminded by the creepily calm Dr. Albright (Matthew Goode) are far more complex than they seemed.
The movie builds intrigue in the early scenes, embodied by the pathos Kingsley brings and the ways Singh embellishes it by capturing the gray, cold light of the autumnal city.
It’s packed with virtuoso filmmaking, including a montage sequence that pulsates with energy, a persistent sense of disorientation and action scenes that are rendered with an eye for spatial relations.
The letdown comes in terms of a narrative that fails to uphold the initial promise, descending into a series of progressively sillier plot developments that trample the character development and broader moral questions raised here, sending things into a disappointingly conventional direction. Reynolds, an underrated actor, conveys plenty of turmoil as Damian’s dream of eternal life is shattered in the service of doing the right thing, but the screenplay by David and Alex Pastor gives him little of interest to do. By the time the picture ends, it all matters much less than it should.