An excellent movie

March 1, 2011 • 6:45 am

Here at the U of C we have the country’s oldest student-run film organization, Doc Films, which shows a variety of great movies in a nice, large, old-fashioned theater with Dolby sound and plush seats. (I HATE these modern theaters that try to maximize profits by subdividing a large space into tiny, uncongenial cheeseboxes.)  There’s a different “series” movie each day from Sunday to Thursday (this quarter’s Wednesdays, for example, have Scorsese movies), with popular second-run movies screened on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday afternoons.  And it’s a great deal: a $30 pass, which I have, entitles you to see any or all of the 70 movies shown each quarter.

On Sunday afternoon I wandered over to the theater to see a second-run film that came out last year, Never Let Me Go. I didn’t have many expectations; in fact, I barely knew what the movie was about.  It turned out to be one of the best movies I’ve seen in the last couple of years, and I want to give it two thumbs up and a strong recommendation for readers.  I am surprised and dismayed that it was never even mentioned as an Oscar contender.  The reviews are favorable but mixed, though the top critics at Rotten Tomatoes are quite positive.  You’ll either love it or think it’s meh.  I found it a beautiful but profoundly disturbing film, wonderfully photographed and acted. It’s a movie that makes you ponder, and, like Ikiru, may even change your life. Even if you go with someone else you will leave the theater silently, alone with your thoughts.

Never Let Me Go could, I suppose, be considered a science fiction film, but only in the loosest sense.  It’s based on a novel of the same name written by Kazuo Ishiguro, a perennial Booker Prize candidate who won for Remains of the Day, also made into a superb film. (Time Magazine named Never Let Me Go the best book of the decade; I confess that I haven’t yet read it.)

(SPOILER ALERT:  plot summary ahead!)

The movie takes place in Britain between the late 1950s and mid 1980’s.  In 1952, the story goes, scientists discovered a way to make people live more than 100 years.  But the method is based on creating human clones in test tubes, and raising them to be organ donors for the general populace.  As your organs fail with age, a replacement is simply removed from a specially-bred donor.  Donors survive several episodes of “donation”, becoming increasingly feeble with each surgery that removes a part, until, on the third or fourth donation, they finally “complete”—the euphemism for “die.”  The England depicted is seedy and depressing, and the organ-harvesting scenario simply superimposed upon modern history—a rewinding of the tape of life.

The story involves three Donors, superbly played by Carey Mulligan (you’ll remember that I loved her performance in the film An Education), Keira Knightley, and Andrew Garfield.  Their movie names are, respectively, Kathy H. (clones have no last names), Ruth, and Tommy.  You can find the full plot summarized at the Wikipedia link above.  In short, they all attend a special school for Donors, where they’re groomed for their ultimate bit-by-bit demise that begins in their twenties. (They’re also involved in a bioethics experiment: the students produce artwork which the teachers scrutinize to determine whether the clones have “souls.”)  Both women fall in love with Tommy, and Ruth nabs him, but is merely using their relationship as a way to lord it over Kathy, who really loves Tommy.  After they’ve left school, they all repair to a farm cottage where, along with other clones, they await the call to begin their donations.  Kathy H., however, trains to be a “carer,” a Donor whose fate is deferred until she shepherds other Donors through their surgeries until “completion.”

I won’t go into detail lest you want to see the movie, but it ends with Ruth and Tommy having completed, but not until Kathy and Tommy reunite in love, and make a failed attempt to delay his last donation so they can spend some time together.  In the end Kathy is left alone, with her own first donation scheduled in a month’s time.

It’s ineffably sad and beautiful (as I left the movie I saw an old dude blubbering in his seat), but, in a way, life affirming. As Kathy looks over a field at the end, contemplating her inevitable slow death by donation, she wonders if those who survive by using her organs really benefit so much.  After all, she muses, “we all complete,” and perhaps even those who live a hundred years want extra time as desperately as she does.  (Carey Mulligan, will, I think, become one of the great actors of our era.)

Perhaps I’m feeling my own mortality, but the film moved me immensely. We all complete, and no matter how ripe our age, it’s never ripe enough.  Instead of living for a nonexistent afterlife, Kathy and Tommy were living for the things that really matter: love, empathy, and human contact.  We are beings who evolved in a social milieu, and unless we’re pathological we need that empathy—that feeling that someone cares about us and will tell us so.  There’s a reason why solitary confinement is considered such a terrible punishment.  And when we’re near completion, what we’ll remember is not how many papers we’ve published, or how much money we’ve made, but the friends and lovers we’ve had along the way.

45 thoughts on “An excellent movie

    1. Such inhumanity to other humans is already commonplace. For example, many people still don’t see anything wrong with invading other countries, killing many thousands of people, for bogus reasons. Especially if “our” oil happens to be under their land.

      Of course slavery and its legacy are still with us. And genocide against “those people” is still in living memory (and still goes on!).

      Stories like this are to remind us how easily we objective other people and treat them as less than human.

  1. I too enjoyed this flic…the story hangs together quite well…and the requisite Hollywood FX didn’t overwhelm the message.

  2. The book was really good too, though very understated and complicated in its narrative.

    The thing I took away from it was that the populace largely considered the clones to be soulless and disturbing. And I had to think, what about identical twins, and that no one has souls. Though it was the face for the reason why it was alright to kill clones for their organs, it does make it understandable why so many otherwise good people would go along with it. After all, don’t so many people hate gays because their pastors tell them too? At least in the real world I would expect some people to dissent.

    1. I think clones and genetic engineering have the potential to shock people out of religion in ways that few realize.

      Conventional dogma is that Jesus uses his Holy Hypodermic to inject a soul into an oocyte along with the spermatozoa, or sometime soon thereafter, or some variation on the theme.

      “Test tube” babies challenged many people’s perceptions, and claims ran rampant that the resulting children would lack souls. However, theologians reasoned that the only difference was that the actual fertilization was taking place in a different place, and surely Jesus wouldn’t be so easily confused; therefore, no need to panic.

      Fast forward however many years you think appropriate to the time when the first healthy human baby is born using the same technique that Venter recently used to create a novel bacterium. The child’s DNA came entirely from a hand-crafted computer program, and no human cells were used in the production of the ovum. When does Jesus whip out the Hypodermic?

      Spend any time thinking about these sorts of things, and the notion of a soul as anything separate from the meat becomes simply untenable. And, when it comes right down to it, the soul is the glue that binds all of religion together.

      Never mind the whole chain from Adam and Eve and the Original Sin through to the necessity for Jesus’s self-zombification; when it finally becomes inescapably apparent that souls are as laughably fantastic as leprechauns and faeries, not only does the whole Jesus edifice come tumbling down, but all of Heaven, Hell, Judgement Day, and the works. How can there be any sort of an afterlife without a soul?

      And then, finally, perhaps people will realize — shock and horrors — that it might not be such a bad idea to try to turn the one life we have into the heaven we yearn for.



      1. “when we’re near completion, what we’ll remember is not how many papers we’ve published, or how much money we’ve made, but the friends and lovers we’ve had along the way” …also in your cases the love of/for a cat…!

      2. To quote Belloq from Raiders of the Lost Ark, There is nothing you possess that I cannot take away. Sufficiently specific brain damage can destroy pretty much any facet of human consciousness that exists, from the ability to recognize ‘left’ to the sense of ones self as a unified entity, to unified decision making. Right now people believe in a soul because they think that there is something to life beyond meat, but really it is just a helpful illusion that our brains give us to make it easier to collate our senses, and eventually we’ll be able to show exactly how it comes about.

        What would be even more interesting with cloning is to remake Neanderthals or H. florenesis (did they get DNA from those subfossils) and see just how different their cognition is. Its harder to believe we’re special when there is a gradient from our last living ancestor to look at.

      3. I wouldn’t get so excited about a specific fact coming to light that will kill religion. We’ve been let down before. Religion wasn’t invented because the soul theory held it together so well, and it won’t die if that theory dies. We have religion because death and unpunished crimes are things that happen, and people will always be clever enough to find ways to not face those facts. If only we could stop them from doing that, then religion would finally die. Wait, now I’m doing it. Crap!

  3. I did not know they had made this into a movie. Ishiguro is one of my favourite authors and this was his first foray into the sci-fi genre.

    It’s one of the more subtle explorations of the issues of cloning and organ donation and the inevitability of death.

  4. I was disappointed in the movie, but I had read the book so all the revelations had been made. Movies always need to edit story, but as a visual medium they can also add and I felt this story was only denuded.

    I am curious is you will read the book now that you have seen the film.

  5. Never Let Me Go is one of those books that I still think about every now and then. What I liked is that it takes rather long in the book to figure out what their school really is, and what a “carer” really is. Dark, yet moving and so full of life.

    I only read one other book by Ishiguro so far, An Artist of the Floating World, which I really liked a lot too. I should read Remains, I really love the movie.

  6. It is a very good movie, IMO. My wife and I saw it at a local theater during its commercial run and found it to be one of the better films of the year.

  7. “The England depicted is seedy and depressing” – that is what England is still like! There is a lot to be said for depressing, if not seedy…

    Yes, the years start to weigh heavily on one. Just think JC – you have lived through the rule of more than 1/4 of US presidents!

  8. I can’t comment on the film (although I will definitely track it down). But Carey Mulligan is definitely a special talent. I first saw her in two BBC productions, both excellent in their own way: first as Ada Clare among an awesome cast in Bleak House and then as Sally Sparrow in “Blink”, a stunning episode of the re-vitalised Dr. Who.

    I agree: she’ll go far.

  9. There is a downside to not splitting cinemas into multiple screens. At the Empire Leicester Square in London, which is where many of the premieres happen in the UK, the best seats cost £21.60 ($35.15) for ONE SEAT!

    It is a fantastic experience, mind you.

    I think it may be the world’s most expensive cinema.

  10. The whole idea of human cloning seems to be viewed very differently by the general public and geneticists. For geneticists it is simply the same as creating a twin – nothing special at all!
    The reason why it is not practically pursued is due to technical issues: it is unethical to produce a human child who may have severe disabilities (for example he or she may be highly susceptible to cancer due to epigenetic alterations) due to our current lack of technical expertise in cloning technology.
    For a lot of the public cloning seems to signify making an exact copy of a person (rather than simply a baby twin)! It seems connected to the idea of the soul and the notion that the copy will be missing something.

    1. Far ‘easier’ to just create artificial organs, but that would not have been as dramatic a story I suppose. I just watched ‘Repo Men’ which was all about reposessing artificial organs when people could not keep up the repayments. Some decent ideas but I thought it a rather unpleasant film. Jude Law was very poor in it.

  11. Sounds interesting! I went onto the library database not expecting to find it and it’s there! We have 72 copies and I am 130 in the queue so it will be a while before I see it. (I don’t do the rental thing anymore since I work at the library.) 🙂 Thanks! A review will most likely be forthcoming! Eventually…

  12. “…old dude blubbering” was an insensitive statement unlike your usual empathetic comments. I wonder what in his life made the film so touching?

    I recommend “Never Say Die” by Susan Jacoby for an impassioned examination of some of the physical, mentall, and emotional pains that accompany aging for all of us.

    1. I was thinking that too. Sounds like it might have fewer rocket-scooter chases though.

      Involuntary organ donation is a major theme in a lot of Larry Niven stories. Except not from clones. Antirejection methods are perfected but apparently not growing organs in culture, which leads to people being condemned to the organ bamks for petty crimes or unpaid parking tickets. Patchwork Girl is story about a beautifukl young woman condemned unjustly to the organ banks (I forget entirely why) who is eventually released through legal efforts. Not before they harvested various parts however, so although made whole again she is not quite the same after. It’s not a very deep story but it’s cute. Not nearly as good as any of his more serious work like the Ringworld series or Protector.

  13. Agree, an excellent movie. In one pivotal scene near the end, one of the characters (the school Principal) tells the two lovers that their school had been concerned with the ethics of what was being done but that “we were answering questions no one was asking” (ie, given the chance to know the details behind where donated organs come from, most people do not want to know. Rings true). The same scene – “we were trying to find out if you had souls at all” – was a real tearjerker. If you have religious sensibilities, you might point to the movie as what might happen “if the atheists ran the place”. If you are a gnu you would believe that a true moral examination could never get us to that place. In fact, the argument that “having a soul” to be a defining aspect of being human actually makes it more likely that a religious society would take us there instead. After all, if you are “made” (cloned) by humans and not born naturally … you are not really human, are you?

  14. I have not seen the film or read the book. I generally prefer books over film, even really well done films. So, I will read the book first, then watch the dvd. Thanks for the recommendation.

  15. I saw this on a flight a couple of months ago. The really horrible thing about the story is the passive acceptance of their fate. That is what I found most depressing about the film, but I thought it was one of it’s strongest points. I can imagine a Hollywood version of the story in which the clones refuse to take it lying down, throw off the shackles and fight back. Ugh! I’ve just described the aforementioned bag of shite “The Island”.

    1. “The really horrible thing about the story is the passive acceptance of their fate.”

      That is classic Ishiguro, and one of things that makes his novels so beautiful, so gentle and so poignant. It is an often overlooked aspect of human nature: acceptance, acquiescence and adapting to survive in circumstances that we would rather not experience.

      1. Too, it’s clear from the movie that the kids are simply propagandized from birth that that is their fate—and that it is a good fate. They are never explicitly told that they’re going to die, until one teacher (in the movie) tells them that they’re not going to live as long as everyone else.

        1. If the organs fail in the ‘originals’ surely there is a reasonable chance of the same in their identical donors?

  16. For what it’s worth–I might be the last dinosaur in the world actually to use such a thing, but I rent from Red Box, and this movie was just released for rental from Red Box today. You can go to their website and reserve it at a location near you. The machines are maddeningly slow, but they are everywhere (including a lot of Mickey-Dees) and you don’t have to return a rental from the same box you got it from. And don’t belittle my unhipness. I know. Netflix, downloads. Perhaps I am just refreshingly old-school–ever think of that?

  17. We tried a few weeks ago but it was too sad for family viewing. I will pick it up again from the library and watch it myself. Thanks for the recommendation.

    I work in biotech. All of our patients always speak of their families, their loved ones. None say, “I wish I had spent more time at work,” or “I wish I had published that book.”

    They all just say: I am so glad to have more time with my family and friends.

  18. And as if there weren’t enough good reasons to see this movie, I found this comment from Alex Garland, the man who adapted the book into a screenplay also piqued further interest:

    “I think everything I write is from an atheist perspective. I mean, it’s partly from an atheist perspective because I’m an atheist, and I’m just not really interested in religious-based questions. I might be at some point, but at the moment I’m really not.”

  19. My experience reading the book was significantly marred by the fact that I was reading it as part of a class on Marxist literary criticism, and we were supposed to be reading into the story how it was about the political exploitation that we all are subjected to. Good book, but I’ll have to read it again now that I’m safely finished with that course.

  20. Greg Egan wrote a fascinating story, ”The Extra”, exploring this idea. It’s available online here.

    In Egan’s story the clones are carefully pithed so that their mentality remains that of a retarded child. The plot thickens when the clones’ owner attempts to cheat death by doing a reverse transplantation with his brain.

    The story’s packed with lots of fascinating Egan asides — eg, if the owner receives a clone’s testicles, can he (the owner) be liable for paternity payments?

    Enjoy. I did.

  21. I don’t understand you people. It is a silly and extremely unrealistic movie with a silly message: cloning and stem cell research and all that soulles Frankenstein-science-stuff are baaaaaaaaad.

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