Science fiction is such a woefully under-realized genre. An opportunity to marry imagination and knowledge to an exploration of the human condition, it was once the realm of of authors who tackled big ideas and deep themes, exploring humanity, spirituality and morality through high concepts and difficult questions.
In today's world--possibly with "Star Wars" to blame--science fiction is basically thought of as lasers, robots and space travel. It is not seen as the realm of thinkers and poets, but as the domain of nerds. Occasionally, a "Dark City, "Matrix" or "Inception" will remind us of what the genre is capable of, but it's not long before it's back to aliens and spaceships.
Mark Romanek's "Never Let Me Go," then, is a film to cherish. Based on Kazuo Ishiguro's beloved novel, the film looks like a standard English drama. It's more concerned with questions of relationships and mortality than with anything fantastical and there are no action sequences or special effects. Running through this art house drama, however, are deep and thought-provoking questions about science, ethics and humanity that will haunt viewers long after the credits have rolled.
Ruth, Kathy and Tommy are three children growing up at an English Boarding School. They're ordinary kids, dealing with bullying, adolescence and a strict headmistress who reminds them to obey the rules because they're very special.
It's not long before a teacher tells them the truth--while most children will grow up to be anything they want and live long lives as adults, the children of Hailsham will never have that opportunity. They have not been born, but created. They will grow up to be donors and after three or four operations, their bodies will begin to shut down and they will reach completion. Hailsham--along with other facilities across the country--is a basically a clone farm.
At this point, most films would kick the plot into high gear and feature a rebellion, a daring escape or an attempt to change the public's mind about the dangers of cloning. But "Never Let Me Go" is less interested in preaching and entertaining than in exploring what the consequences of a breakthrough like this would be on the young men and women who learn they are created to be nothing more than spare parts.
The film follows the three through three separate time periods--their childhood at Hailsham, teenage years at a cottage and the period nearing their completion. They do not seek escape or a change to the situation; they simply accept their fate and spend the film with the knowledge that they will never see old age. The best they can do is make the most of the time they have left.
Kathy (Carey Mulligan), the narrator, pines after Tommy (Andrew Garfield), who instead winds up with Ruth (Keira Knightley), but there are hints that he still may love her and be a better match. Ruth yearns to fit in with a modern couple they meet at the cottage. There's a heart-breaking trip to the city, where they hope to find Ruth's "original" and questions about who they were modeled after--decent people or the nation's forgotten. There's a fallout, a reunion, a chance at hope, the loss of friend and the underlying question of whether a human created in a lab is truly a human--do they have a soul, can they feel love, are they simply carbon copies of their originals?
Romanek, the music video director whose last film was 2002's "One Hour Photo," pulls back on the flashy visuals and instead creates a simple, yet beautiful and poignant film, content to let these characters grow, breathe and deal with the implications of their situation. He allows the questions to come to the audience organically instead of in speeches or ham-fisted exposition, except for an ill-advised moment at the very end where Kathy voices the film's main themes, which careful viewers have likely already begun mulling over.
The film is carried by a cast of three wonderful young actors. Knightley, dressed down and looking plainer than she has since "The Jacket," brings a viciousness and sadness to Ruth, who desperately wants to fit in and feel normal, despite her fears that she's been modeled after trash. Garfield, just weeks after delivering a riveting performance in "The Social Network," perfectly captures the frustration of a young boy who can't control his anger, was always seen as an outcast and aches for connection with the one person who understands him.
Mulligan delivered one of last year's best performances in "An Education" and proves here that the work was not a fluke. She's heartbreaking as Kathy, the outsider who watches everyone else living life while she aches, yearns and questions her existence. She's sympathetic and loving--which plays a major role in her adult role as a Carer--and yet she too wonders where she's come from and why her short life is so lonely and empty.
"Never Let Me Go" provokes questions and thoughts on the issues of cloning, to be sure. But its deeper concern is about the issues of life and mortality. What matters at the end? How do we live in the face of death--an inevitability whether it comes at a young age or old? Do we feel special or are we just fulfilling an obligation here on Earth? Are we here to be used by people or are we here to be useful to them? It's a very deep movie and the one of the strongest meditations on the themes of life and death since "Synecdoche, New York."
I saw this movie on a beautiful, sunny afternoon. I left the dark theater and felt that everything took on a new seriousness or weight. I wanted to call my fiancee just to hear her voice and I wanted to make sure every moment was being lived to the fullest. It's a rare thing when films can produce these thoughts, instead of leaving my brain as soon as the lights come up. I'm very thankful for Romanek for having delivered this movie and have a feeling I'll be revisiting it several times.