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Never Let Me Go

October 2, 2010

Never Let Me Go

How do you deal with a truth so horrific it embodies your entire existence? Do you cling to any rumored hopes that it’s not as bad as it seems? Do you find something to occupy yourself with to distract from what’s all around? Do you grow bitter and spiteful? Or do you scream, impotently, at the impending nightfall?

I have difficulty calling “Never Let Me Go” anything but science fiction, although it won’t seem like it on the surface to most people. In this world, an unspecified medical breakthrough took place in 1952; by 1967, life expectancy had shot past 100 — for most people. But this gain was achieved by advances in organ transplants, which could now cure almost any affliction. All that was required was a steady supply of organs on demand.

And to fill that need, the government has set up a system of — well, “clones” isn’t quite accurate but there’s really no better term. They’re created, raised in something like a boarding school to be as healthy as possible, and then wait around for their “donations” to begin. After three or four — sometimes less, sometimes more — they “complete” on the operating table and are left to be cleaned up with the scalpels and latex gloves.

This isn’t “The Time Machine”, where the Morlock underclass eventually rises up against the Eloi. Like the best dystopian science fiction, the action plays out within this world and not against it. The best hopes any donor has is to delay a while by volunteering as a carer, who will tend to other donors as they recover from their donations, or to obtain a “deferral”, which rumors insist are available to donor couples who can prove that they’re in love. Unfortunately it seems to be something of an urban legend.

The movie plays out in three views into the lives of three donors, Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Ruth (Keira Knightley), and Tommy (Andrew Garfield). The first shows them at 11, when they first come to understand their fate. The second is at 18, as they leave their school and start to wait for their donations to begin. The third comes at 28, when Kathy is a carer and Ruth and Tommy have both made their second donation. As we watch, we struggle to come to terms with their world as they have.

The mood is set beautifully by Romanek. The day’s light begins in the late afternoon, and it seems to always be autumn. Sunset and winter are immanent before we even begin. The palette is stocked with greys and pale greens, and even the brightest scenes are sickly, knowing what horrors are always looming just around the bend. It is a lovely movie, but a cold one; the truth, once released, cannot be escaped, but only dealt with somehow.

Worth it: yes, with the caveat that this must be numbered among the most depressing movies I have ever seen.
Bechdel test: pass.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. Hunt permalink
    October 2, 2010 07:43

    Great. Something to make those unfamiliar with it even more paranoid of bioscience. Whatever happened to the days of Salk and Sabin, when science was considered the safeguard carefully monitoring our world and looking over us? Now science either wants to kill us or provide an interminable distopian future.

    • October 2, 2010 08:03

      I don’t think that the medical aspect is the point; consider the conditions of inner-city minorities, or of those in the Third World (just as a few examples). We live the lifestyle we have on their backs, and we give them no real opportunity to escape those conditions. Life all good science fiction, the particulars of the story serve to recast this into a new situation we might reflect on more honestly.

  2. Hunt permalink
    October 2, 2010 08:02

    I might actually make a pattern of giving my follow up review of the movie based on your review, as I did with “Money never sleeps.” Then I’ll watch the movie and see how close I got — (tho I haven’t even seen MNS yet).

    Based on what you describe, my opinion is this: the mood you depict is based on a pretty unrealistic melding of our own world with a contingency that directly conflicts with it. In other words, we can conceive of a world with organ transplant slaves, but in order for that to happen, it would have to be radically different than our own. However, the movie doesn’t present it this way, and this builds the paranoid impression in the viewer’s mind that there might be something terribly wrong with our world. A similar technique was used in “The Stepford Wifes,” but at least in that case there was a subtextual message about gender inequality in our world. David Lynch is famous for presenting the most idyllic versions of America that include dark and seamy underbellies. In fact, the real world actually is dark and horrific in his films. There is only a thin veneer of normalcy and innocence.

    What, if anything, do you think is the message of Never Let me Go, or is it just going for mood?

  3. spleeness permalink
    November 17, 2010 09:52

    I’d be interested in seeing a list of your top favorite funny movies, top favorite dramas, top good but depressing films, etc. — I like lists. (And populating my netflix queue.)

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