A beautifully produced romantic drama, Never Let Me Go (2010) makes for some highly disappointing science fiction. Based on a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, the story posits an alternate history in which life extension advancements in the 1950s lead to a radically different world. The story, opening in 1978, involves a trio of students brought up at Hailsham House in England. Intelligent, creative Kathy (Carey Mulligan) feels a kinship with shy, bullied Tommy (Andrew Garfield) — who nonetheless falls for Kathy’s best friend Ruth (Keira Knightley). The childhood love triangle continues into young adulthood, complicated by the sad knowledge that none of them will lead long and healthy lives: they are clones, destined to donate their vital organs to “real” people and eventually die fulfilling this injust duty. As they near their expiration dates, they grasp desperately at one last chance to extend their tragically short lives together.
A quite polished production, Never Let Me Go is a very well acted drama centered on effective relationships between well drawn characters. Sadly, in concept it feels very much like a case of a mainstream writer stumbling across a familiar science fiction premise and treating it like a wildly original notion. But the treatment is far from earth-shattering. It asks the initial question (“what if we raised clones…for their organs?”) without asking very many follow-up questions, ultimately answering simply, “that would be bad.” The clones are oddly complacent and resigned to their fate, and the world at large is callous and ethically indifferent to their plight. It’s a black-and-white treatment of the idea, emotional but simplistic, and delivered with an air of false profundity. (And if the novel explains why the clones don’t “go rogue,” or how they’re controlled despite having relatively free reign to travel the countryside, or why it’s relevant to set this story in an alternate past rather than in the future, the movie certainly doesn’t bother. The science fictional thinking here isn’t very rigorous.)
Given that it’s such a disappointment conceptually, there’s some consolation in that the movie-making is assured and attractive. An early sense of intrigue never pays off with story surprise, but it does provide effective acting fodder for its talented cast. Particularly noteworthy is the understated Mulligan, whose sad, inscrutable expressions throughout hint at an intrinsic understanding of the tragic situation that her more credulous peers lack. But the relationships, effective as they may be, are incidental to the SF ideas that spawned them, and in the end the film provides no deep insights, just a manipulative sense of sadness for its characters.