There’s a haunting line in the closing scenes of Ridley Scott’s masterpiece Blade Runner where Rutger Hauer, playing a runaway replicant, started muttering to Harrison Ford’s detective about “attack ships on the shoulder of Orion” and “C beams that glitter in the dark at Tanhauser Gate”, which seems to be just a load of sci-fi blather until dear old Rutger delivers a devastating coda – “All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.” Perhaps this makes much more resonant sense in the premise of this revisionist science-fiction tale about a cloistered British boarding school which doubles as a cloning farm industry whose cloned children are brought in the most draconian terms to donate organs for their human counterparts. This is not by way of spoiler – anyone who goes in to see this film must have a vague idea of the central premise at the heart of Kazuo Ishiguro’s lauded novel.
Most critics brought up by the age of sci-fi films of Hollywood have griped about Never Let Me Go‘s slow-burning build-up and its subsequent lack of cathartic release, that these thwarted clones don’t stand up in arms and rage against the machine that made them. And if that sounds like an anti-climactic cinematic experience for you, go and watch Michael Bay’s deliriously dumb The Island, where clones do get to rage, rage, rage against the dying of the light, with lots of explosion and screwed-up storyline. Spectacle isn’t the intention in Mark Romanek’s vision, but a quiet, thoughtful meditation of what it exactly means to be human, cloned or not, and the moral ramifications of our modern, industrialised society. Here, all obligatory images of the outer dystopian world found in most science-fiction movies – laboratories, high-tech living – are banished out of the frame and we’re presented with a period drama wrapped up in a Merchant Ivory-esque romance. The result is closer to Joe Wright’s Atonement rather than, say, Scott’s Blade Runner.
But it nevertheless raises the same profound questions that most good sci-fi films dare to ask, where clones begin learning the mysterious ways of the heart. The film’s heroine, Kathy, played with a subdued yet compelling grace by Carey Mulligan, barely fights against the authority that carved a life for her and her friends, Tommy (a heartbreaking Andrew Garfield) and Ruth (Keira Knightley in a mesmerising supporting role) but bears a remarkable blend of strength and vulnerability to witness her friends’ demise. This wistful scenario only allow us to compare Kathy with Blade Runner‘s Batty, who both share the same doomed fate, which is also not quite dissimilar to our own lives. Death in inevitable, life is impermanent, and Never Let Me Go allows us to be sober about our fragile human existence – to live and love while you can, before your time is up.
It never quite give the emotional catharsis the story needs, but Never Let Me Go is a lesson in subdued, understated storytelling, undermined by this era of dramatic fireworks. Less is more, and Romanek has crafted a quietly devastating, thought-provoking meditation on the impermanence of human life so profound that it makes a hundred sci-fi dramas look overwrought.