A publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne


Self/Less is less than the sum parts of itself

Not even acting royalty can save hackneyed drama from its own crass sub-plots, writes Anders Furze

Review by Anders Furze
Ryan Reynolds playing Ben Kingsley playing, er . . . Ryan Reynolds in Self/Less.

Ryan Reynolds playing Ben Kingsley playing, er . . . Ryan Reynolds in Self/Less.

For its first forty five seconds, Self/Less is an interesting movie. Atmospheric music mixes with white noise as the camera pans, ever quicker, up a park that is revealed to be the park, Central Park, and as the soundtrack crescendos we focus on Sir Ben Kingsley staring out the window of a skyscraper. The soundtrack is punctured by the sound of crockery breaking and Sir Ben flinches.

And when Sir Ben Kingsley flinches, you know about it. For a split second the whole moviemaking apparatus grinds to a halt and then cranks itself up again with a new guiding purpose: underlining the spectacle of capital-A Actor Sir Ben Kingsley capital-A Acting. Sir Ben flinches in a skyscraper window the way that Pierce Brosnan jumps off a dam in Goldeneye: purposefully, with rigid control of his body. 

This is fun, for a while. But the problem with Self/Less is that Sir Ben lasts barely 20 minutes before he’s replaced by Ryan Reynolds. And when the whole moviemaking apparatus swings itself behind the spectacle of Ryan Reynolds acting then . . . well, you know things are heading in the wrong direction.


Simultaneously bemused and pleased with himself, Reynolds plays the same character but transposed onto another body. To cut a long story short: Sir Ben overacts his way through the role of a fabulously wealthy New York property developer named Damian.

Damian is dying. The last thing he does is sign-up for “shedding”, an experimental process where his consciousness is transported to another body. Damian dies as Sir Ben Kingsley and is then reborn as Ryan Reynolds.

But all is not as it seems, and he spends the rest of the movie discovering secrets about both his new host body, and the doctor who performed the surgery (Matthew Goode), who you can tell is both intelligent and evil because he is British. 

It’s an inventive idea for a movie, which makes the gradual realisation that Self/Less is not actually interested in fully exploring its premise all the more painful. Instead, for reasons far from clear, it’s more into using this convoluted story to serve up some thoroughly generic action sequences and easily spotted plot twists.

One extended scene offers a glimpse into how, despite some weak attempts at novelty, the action is painfully formulaic. Damian tracks down a house he keeps seeing in ‘phantom flashbacks’. Of course, it once belonged to the body he now inhabits.

The ensuing fight scene between Damian and some Heavies somewhat creatively makes use of household objects, and includes the demolition of a bathroom sink with a head. But it unfortunately recalls last year’s comedy Bad Neighbours, which staged a fight scene in a house far more creatively.

Much like the rest of this movie, there are some good animating ideas, but the scene doesn’t bother executing them well or investigating them fully: the characters are fighting, and then they’re not, and then Ryan Reynolds is on the run with the woman who was married to him and thought he was dead.


This is Self/Less’s craziest subplot, and its gender politics are . . .  well, problematic. It turns out that Madeline (Natalie Martinez) was married to Ryan Reynolds before Ben Kingsley’s character took over his body. So when her dead husband shows up claiming to be somebody else, she naturally goes along for the ride.

In the film’s most cringeworthy scene, Madeline gazes fondly out a window as she watches Ben-Kingsley-in-Ryan-Reynolds’-body playfully bonding with the six year-old daughter she had with Ryan Reynolds-in-Ryan Reynolds’ body. When he comes inside, they kiss. It’s laughably patronising.

The requisite love interest is not the only focus of Self/Less’s patronising lens. Other unfortunate subjects include the entire city of New Orleans, reduced in an extended montage to a playground of music and women for the young-again Damian in which to lose himself. And then, finally, there’s the entire audience.

Twice in this movie two characters escape burning buildings as the authorities arrive by fleeing on the other side of an embankment. Twice in this movie we’re treated to wide crane shots showing the characters running one way and fire trucks and police arriving the other way. They’re virtually shot-for-shot identical moments. The makers of Self/Less think that its premise is creative enough to disguise the fact that it recycles shots in two key moments of its story. That’s not only lazy, it’s arrogant filmmaking. 

► 1½ stars 

Self/Less is screening nationally from Thursday July 23.

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THE CITIZEN is a publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism. It has several aims. Foremost, it is a teaching tool that showcases the work of the students in the University of Melbourne’s Master of Journalism and Master of International Journalism programs, giving them real-world experience in working for publication and to deadline. Find out more →

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