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Self/less is Cinematic Escapism with Soul

  • Susan Ellingburg Contributing Writer
  • 2015 9 Jul
<i>Self/less</i> is Cinematic Escapism with Soul

DVD Release Date: November 10, 2015
Theatrical Release Date: July 10, 2015
Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of violence, some sexuality, and language)
Genre: Mystery, Sci-Fi, Thriller
Run Time: 117 minutes
Director: Tarsem Singh
Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Ben Kingsley, Natalie Martinez, Derek Luke, Matthew Goode, Victor Garber, Michelle Dockery

I always think a good summer movie needs three things: a plot that keeps me interested, a reasonable amount of action, and—just saying—a little eye candy. Self/less delivers all that and more in a twisty-turny, edge-of-your-seat story that requires more than a little suspension of disbelief but is definitely worth the effort.

Damian (Ben Kingsley, Shutter Island) is a billionaire real estate mogul with terminal cancer who is finally forced to come to terms with the fact that "you can't live forever." Except... maybe you can. Thanks to the scientific breakthroughs of a creepy scientist, those with sufficient funds can undergo a process called "shedding." This medical miracle extracts the consciousness from one body and places it in another body that was grown-to-order in a lab. As the suave Albright (Matthew Goode, The Imitation Game) explains, the procedure "allows humanity's greatest minds more time." And by greatest, he means richest (the film didn't get into the concept of a soul, so we won't either. Screenwriter brothers David and Alex Pastor decided they wouldn't "get bogged down in technicalities... It was the moral consequences that interested us").

So, with his imminent demise staring him in the face, Damian takes the plunge and wakes up in a significantly younger, healthier body he's instructed to think of as Edward (Ryan Reynolds, Green Lantern). Easy-peasy, right? Not quite. "Death," it was noted, "has some side effects."

Edward eventually takes up residence in a New Orleans mansion—because in his world you can take it with you—and sets about breaking in his new body with a lifestyle worthy of the writer of Ecclesiastes. Wine, women, parties, pick-up basketball games; eventually even Edward reluctantly begins to realize that "all is vanity." The problem is intensified by troublesome hallucinations that place him in a different locale with what sure looks like a family. The prescription 'anti-rejection drugs' Albright gives him help hold the visions at bay, but suspicions are growing that the "bundle of organic tissue" now known as Edward may not have come from a petri dish after all.

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That's when the fun really begins. Heart-pounding suspense and bursts of action trade off with unexpected humor and sweet moments with characters worth caring about. This film is violent: people get shot, flame-throwers are put to bad (and good) use, cars crash, and so on. The hand-to-hand fighting is particularly interesting because it's not as elegant as it usually appears on screen. "They looked like real people fighting," my companion noted. As violent as the action sometimes was, the camera didn't linger or do icky close-ups; many of the actions could be considered justifiable, in context.

Reynolds is never hard to watch, and his Damian/Edward is a new wrinkle on what it means to know yourself. "He's a guy that has never allowed himself to lose," Reynolds said about his character, "but I think he learns that surrendering doesn't necessarily mean losing." To avoid letting too much slip about the story, I’ll just say that Madeline (Natalie Martinez, Broken City), a woman in an impossible situation, was always interesting to watch. Little Anna, played by young newcomer Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen, was so naturally charming it led to a post-viewing debate of how much of her dialogue was scripted and how much was ad-lib caught by a director smart enough to keep the cameras rolling.

Speaking of the director, Tarsem Singh (Mirror, Mirror) made good choices that helped keep Self/less interesting. I particularly liked the moment when little Anna watches her parents argue outside from her seat inside the car and, like her, we hear only silence. Singh balances mounting suspense with moments of respite and humor so viewers don't get exhausted from all that tension. The seedy, beautiful New Orleans locale adds an aura of looming malevolence. Finally, while not letting any cats out of bags, all ends well. Not necessarily "happily ever after for everyone," but well. And this time of year, when summer escapism is the order of the day, that's good enough for me.

CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers):

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  • Drugs/Alcohol: Damian/Edward is on prescription drugs; there is plenty of drinking but it’s not a major part of the story.
  • Language/Profanity: Oh yes, there was language: not that often, but scattered evenly throughout. Over the course of 117 minutes every popular profanity, including a muffled f-bomb, made an appearance, usually only once per word. Jesus and “g-d” showed up a couple of times each but sh** was the clear favorite.
  • Sex/Nudity: When Edward first hits the streets after the “shedding” he appears to be on course to sleep with every attractive woman in New Orleans. One is shown in bed with him wearing only a thong; the rest go by too fast to make an impression. There is some additional kissing and making out. As with the violence, most of the sexual action is short-lived.
  • Violent/Frightening/Intense:  Yes. All of the above. It is violent, with fighting, crashes, fire, and so on; frightening—but pleasurably so; and intense (through most of the movie).  
  • Spiritual Themes: The company that provides shedding services is trying to play God and achieve immortality. It doesn’t work, of course, and even in the movie there are consequences. It could spark some interesting conversations about what a life is worth and the One who really died so that we might live.

Publication date: July 9, 2015