Never Let Me Go is a haunting exploration of what humans can do to one another, how they can attempt to redefine the very concept of humanity in order to exploit those they see as subhuman. It tackles these themes as skillfully and memorably as any film of recent years, perhaps even more than most. It does this by taking an idea that’s usually relegated to loud, explosive action films and spinning it into a quiet, deeply powerful drama.
How strange, then, that the minds behind the film seem to be making every effort to distance themselves from their achievement. The revelation about half-an-hour in, that the film is about three young clones who were (to put it bluntly) created for spare parts, spreads a dark cloud over the story that nothing can dissipate. Yet screenwriter Alex Garland told Moviefone, “It’s not like a film covertly about stem-cell research or the evils of cloning, it's got nothing to do with that, it's about mortality and other people and love and death and it sounds trite saying it like that, but it's sort of true as well.” Kazuo Ishiguro, author of the acclaimed novel on which the film was based, told TIME, “I don't want people to come away from the film thinking, I wonder if we should continue experimenting with stem cells. That's not the intent.” In the same article, director Mark Romanek stated, “It's about the brevity of our time on the planet. And when we become aware of how briefly we're here, how do we make the best use of our time? And how do we not come to the end of our life and regret our choices? That's the film I was making. The science-fiction aspects are just a delivery system for those ideas.” Even one of the stars, Keira Knightley, caught herself short after calling the film a “quiet tragedy” in her TIME interview: “Gosh, I shouldn't say ‘quiet tragedy.’ That doesn't really sell it very well. Or maybe it isn't. Maybe it's just the way life is.”
Ishiguro at least may have an understandable motive for trying to downplay the film’s “delivery system.” As I wrote when I reviewed his book five years ago, when a novel makes a statement as compelling and important as this one, there’s always a risk of its being dismissed as a mere message book. Yet with a story as deep and as well told as this one, that risk is considerably lessened.
To say that Never Let Me Go isn’t really about cloning, in fact, is to weaken its otherwise devastating impact. One could argue that Fail-Safe isn’t really about nuclear war, or that The Miracle Worker isn’t about a blind and deaf girl, or that Death of a Salesman isn’t about a traveling salesman. One might even be correct--up to a point. All these stories are meant to touch upon universal themes. And yet stories are not abstract. They are about specific people in specific situations, and it’s those specifics that give them their resonance. That’s why Never Let Me Go is strongest when its characters, unable to take comfort in fantasies or evasions any longer, fall to screaming and raging against their fate: legally sanctioned murder. And that’s why I found their eventual submission to that fate so chillingly realistic--because it so accurately reflects our society’s attitude toward the sanctity of life.
Some viewers have criticized the film because its three main characters, Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy, don’t rebel against their fate: “It's antithetical to the American creed of how you should face setbacks—that if you fight back, love conquers all,” as Ishiguro notes. But it’s very much in line with the pragmatism and utilitarianism of so much of contemporary American culture. In fact, love doesn’t conquer all, and the clones don’t fight back, because they’ve been infected with the kind of belief that already is poisoning our society: the belief that humans created in a lab are lesser beings who can be sacrificed for the greater good. These young men and women give up their lives for a misguided idea--the idea that for them to be treated as humans, with worth and value of their own, would be to take all of humanity back to a time of “darkness.” But because we’ve seen their story through their eyes, we end up feeling very differently. So however Ishiguro, Garland, and Romanek feel about the issue of cloning and embryonic research, we can be grateful that they were at least committed to telling a good story.
The one weak point in the film comes at the very end: Kathy, having lost her two friends and knowing that her own death is drawing near, muses to herself that maybe all people wish they had more time, that maybe the clones’ brief, sad lives aren’t so different from the lives of the people who are saved by their donated vital organs. That’s a very nice sentiment, but as an attempt to pretty up a stark fate it’s a failure. Echoing Romanek’s and Garland’s remarks, it feels like something that was tacked on in a sudden attempt to soft-pedal the tragedy they’ve just spent nearly two hours sharing with us.
If you can ignore the last two minutes, Never Let Me Go is a great film and one of the most important stories the cinema has told in years. It’s just too bad that its makers don’t seem to realize that.
Gina R. Dalfonzo is editor of BreakPoint.org and Dickensblog.