The rich are different from you and me. They can buy fresh bodies when the old ones wear out.
Well, at least they can in Self/less, a movie that raises provocative questions about identity and then doesn't think about them at all. In this sci-fi fantasy, rebottling your soul in a new vessel begets not contemplation but chase scenes. Lots of chase scenes.
That's surprising only because the thing was directed by Tarsem Singh, whose resume includes such nutty but singular fables as The Cell and The Fall. Singh once seemed an original, but Self/less doesn't have a distinctive bone in either of its bodies.
The movie begins in a demimonde so garishly opulent that it was partly filmed in Trump Tower. Played by Ben Kingsley with a New York accent the size of the Bronx, Damian is a wealthy real estate developer with terminal cancer. He's not too busy dying, however, to forgo having a young competitor to lunch so he can humiliate him.
Damian lives alone in an absurdly rococo mega-condo, and has one regret: He neglected his daughter (Michelle Dockery), who was sufficiently traumatized by dad's disinterest to grow up to be a community organizer. She rejects her old man in the most hurtful way possible: by declining his money.
Perhaps Damian can make amends once he gets his replacement bod, which scientific entrepreneur Dr. Albright (Matthew Goode) claims he grew in a lab. The procedure is all hush-hush, requiring maximum deniability. Damian must first stage his own death before reincarnating as Edward (Ryan Reynolds), a slab of beef so bland he might be mistaken for tofu.
Overseen by Anton (Derek Luke), Edward begins his new existence in a French Quarter town house, bedding a string of sexy extras during a perfunctory let-the-good-times-roll montage. Life No. 2 is good, until Edward notices the signs that his body is a used model. It sports a partially erased tattoo on one bulky bicep and suffers traumatic flashbacks to a previous family and combat in a desert clime.
The military training will prove useful when Damian/Edward experiences a major case of buyer's remorse. He breaks with Albright, an Oxbridge Dr. Frankenstein who is — of course — not what he seems. The maddened scientist sends Anton and other thugs after his dissatisfied client as Edward goes in search of the wife and young daughter (Natalie Martinez and Jaynee Lynne-Kinchen) he somehow recalls.
For Damian, or what's left of him, this could be a chance to do right by his, or somebody's, daughter. He might finally commit an act of selflessness, which would give the title a meaning that's a bit more complex than the movie's plot.
The action gallops across familiar territory, and not just because it was mostly shot in Louisiana, a state whose generous tax-credit policies have enticed scores of recent B-movies. Alex Pastor and David Pastor's script recalls such predecessors as 1960's Eyes Without a Face and 1966's Seconds, as well as many lesser life-swapping flicks. (Face/Off, anybody?)
If the filmmakers had injected a few ideas, and if Reynolds were capable of conveying any emotions other than befuddlement and affability, the movie could have transcended its story's predictability. But perhaps that was impossible. The destiny of a reincarnated soul, it's said, is preordained by the acts of its prior life. In other words, being kind of dull is Self/less' karma.