“Self/less” like many movie titles has a double meaning. There’s “selfless” meaning unselfish, and then there’s self-less, meaning without a self. This is apt, although it’s not explored in much depth, because there’s perpetual tension between characters who are intentionally doing Bad Things versus characters who unintentionally wind up using immoral means to achieve their ends.
“Self/less” opens with a close-up of mega-wealthy, self-made businessman, Damian, (Ben Kingsley), gazing out over his grand estate. Soon we learn that he’s terminally ill, has one close friend/colleague (Victor Garber), and is estranged from his grown daughter who runs a non-profit and gives him the brush off when he visits her (she doesn’t know he’s dying). Somehow Ben acquires a card with the name of a mysterious company that promises him a chance to wake up (after a staged death) in a new body (Ryan Reynolds) that’s much younger. Initiating Ben into this procedure is Albright (Matthew Goode), who appears to wear the same suit and the same grim expression for the entire movie (as if he’s considering telling his agent that he really needs more projects like “The Imitation Game”). He’s playing a psychopath, though, so this works, and one who genuinely believes in the ultimate value of what he’s doing. Spoiler alert – The bodies he’s using for the transplant procedure are not grown in test tubes (as Ben and Victor assume) but are people who have been killed for that specific purpose, and, oh yes, there’s a few catches.
When Ben wakes up as Ryan, he discovers that “death has some side effects.” He needs to relearn basic body movements all over again, and it’s necessary for him to take a daily pill – at first, allegedly to ward off suicidal thoughts (another side effect), but ultimately, to keep Ben’s mind in Ryan’s body intact. Otherwise – more spoilers – Ryan will slowly lose his consciousness and re-become the man whose body he’s taken, Mark, who’s left behind a wife (Natalie Martinez) and an adorable daughter. From the start, Ryan experiences hallucinations of a life he’s never experienced firsthand but which seems eerily familiar.
At first, Ryan is content enough having unlimited hook ups, playing basketball in his New Orleans neighborhood and eating a ton of Skippy peanut butter, but soon he decides to track down Natalie. This brings him in conflict with Matthew and his minions, and kicks off a lot of scenes in which Ryan uses “Mark’s” military training (somehow not affected by the medication at all) to stay alive. In addition, to retaining military prowess, Ryan also appears to have a bionic body as he manages such feats as getting slammed into a fridge without a concussion, and shatters a window with his elbow without needing a trip to the ER. In fact, he even manages to survive a high speed car chase shootout ending with the car rolling over with just a small red gash on his nose, matching the one over his eye – no stitches or real medical assistance required.
Ryan brings Natalie and his daughter to Victor’s for temporary shelter, and there – more spoilers – he discovers that Victor’s son, who supposedly died two years ago is alive and well. I never quite caught how exactly Victor and his wife manage to explain the child to their social circle – unless it was mentioned somewhere that they keep the child locked in a playroom, which I missed. I also wondered how new the process of using kids this way was, and how exactly, they managed to obtain/kill the child whose body they took. (In “Extreme Measures,” Hugh Grant played a young doctor who discovers that his superior is trying to save lives by experimenting on homeless people, raising some of the same issues about the intrinsic value of human life.) But these questions are side-stepped here (though Victor does a good job of conveying anguish when he discovers the truth), in order to focus on Ryan.
After a couple of hours of grappling with moral/ethical dilemmas, and avoiding attempts on his life, Ryan manages to get both Natalie and daughter to safety. He also ultimately decides to make amends to “Mark,” and stop taking the pills, though part of him has come to care for them both and doesn’t want to just walk away (he feels much residual guilt about not being there for his own daughter). “Self-less” does raise some unsettling questions about life and death, but seems mostly content to be just another summer action movie.