In 1966, John Frankenheimer directed one of his most audacious movies, Seconds, with a script by Lewis John Carlino from a novel by David Ely. It told the story of an older banker who solicits the help of a shadowy organization that will fake his death and reconstruct him with a brand-new identity, as well as a new face and body. The movie was a box-office flop, but has developed a cult following over the years and clearly had an influence on the makers of Self/less, director Tarsem Singh and screenwriters Alex Pastor and David Pastor. The new film has more of a traditional thriller angle than the Frankenheimer film, so might have a better commercial shot, though its prospects still seem iffy.
Of course, Seconds wasn’t a brand-new idea even in 1966; it was one of many variations on the Frankenstein myth, and we’ve seen other stories about people going to great lengths to cheat death and seek a second chance. But the similarities between this new film and Frankenheimer’s movie are too striking to ignore. The failings of Self/less reveal a good deal about what has gone wrong with American movies over the last 50 years.
A fast-paced sci-fi thriller with too many contrivances
In Seconds, the main character, played by John Randolph, was suffering from severe malaise that led him to take drastic measures. The protagonist of Self/less, Damian Hale (Ben Kingsley), is a wealthy businessman who also is haunted by personal dissatisfactions, but he has a more immediate problem: terminal cancer. So when he learns about a scientific institute that can retain his mind but give him a new, healthy body created in a laboratory, he jumps at the chance. In the Frankenheimer movie, the old man was reincarnated as Rock Hudson, and it’s apt that the younger Damian is portrayed by a contemporary hunk in the Hudson mold, Ryan Reynolds. Both Hudson and Reynolds became movie stars on the basis of their looks rather than their acting abilities, so the casting makes a certain kind of poetic sense.
Once Damian has been reincarnated, he adjusts slowly but eagerly to his healthy new body, satisfying his hedonistic appetites. Soon, however, Damian begins to be troubled by mental visions that his handlers assure him are merely hallucinations. But Damian begins to suspect that they are images of events that really happened. Whose past is he remembering? As he searches for answers to the mystery, the organization is desperate to keep him from learning the truth.
So far so good. There is a neat twist halfway through the film, when Damian discovers some startling answers at a farm in Missouri. This exciting sequence is the high point of the film. After that, the remaining twists become increasingly far-fetched, and the intriguing story degenerates into a flat-out action movie with car chases and violent shoot-outs that are competently filmed by Singh but seem to come from a far more conventional film.
In Seconds, the villain of the piece was the avuncular head of the organization providing second chances, played to sinister perfection by Will Geer. In this new version, the head of the institute is a seemingly owlish but ruthless scientist played by Matthew Goode. Goode often plays sympathetic characters (as in The Imitation Game), but he showed in The Lookout that he could make a chillingly nasty villain, and he gives the best performance in this film. Derek Luke also makes a strong impression as a stranger who befriends the younger Damian on the streets of New Orleans.
Reynolds tries hard, but he just can’t muster enough expression to make the character’s dilemma wrenching. Kingsley has only a small part at the beginning, and his exaggerated New Yawk accent will not be remembered as the high point of his acting career. Natalie Martinez plays Damian’s romantic interest without any special distinction. Michelle Dockery of Downton Abbey has a small role as Damian’s idealistic daughter. The scene in which Reynolds visits her and tries to make amends for his neglect is reminiscent of a scene in Seconds when Hudson calls on his elderly wife, who has no idea that the young man facing her is her husband.
Technical credits are solid. Singh and cinematographer Brendan Galvin make good use of the attractive locations. The editing by Robert Duffy helps to paper over the holes in the script and keep the movie hurtling forward. The only truly egregious touch comes at the very end: Seconds took the story to a dark but perfectly logical conclusion; Self/less seems to be heading toward an equally melancholy or at least bittersweet conclusion, but then lurches unconvincingly toward a blissful reunion on a Caribbean island. Sadly, the uncompromising filmmaking of the 1960s is unimaginable for today’s craven storytellers and studio executives.
Production companies: Endgame Entertainment, Ram Bergman Prods.
Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Natalie Martinez, Matthew Goode, Ben Kingsley, Victor Garber, Michelle Dockery, Derek Luke
Director: Tarsem Singh
Screenwriters: Alex Pastor, David Pastor
Producers: Ram Bergman, James D. Stern, Peter Schlessel
Executive producers: Julie Goldstein, Dave Pomier, Lia Buman
Director of photography: Brendan Galvin
Production designer: Tom Foden
Costume designer: Shay Cunliffe
Editor: Robert Duffy
Music: Antonio Pinto
Casting: Mary Vernieu, Venus Kanani
Rated PG-13, 116 minutes