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Thursday, 24 March 2011

Missing the Point Entirely: Never Let Me Go

The obvious thing to say about the science in the science-fiction film Never Let Me Go is this: it’s a metaphor. In fact, it is so obviously a metaphor that to try to engage with the science any further is a clear waste of time. And yet, and yet....

Yes, the (slight) science-fiction angle is used to sharpen the tale of young people for whom death comes too soon, who cling to relationships not out of love but of fear of being alone, who try to make things right in their lives only to discover that it’s too late, they’ve run out of time and the future they though they could reach thanks to the goodness in their hearts – well, society has in mind an entirely different use for their hearts. But that doesn’t mean the science doesn’t have to make some kind of sense.

The story itself is about Cathy (Carey Mulligan once she grows up) attending a strange and closed-off English boarding school in (a parallel world version of) the 1970s. Turns out it’s closed-off for a reason; advances in science reaching back as far as 1952 (so presumably it was a spin-off from Nazi science, and we all know how that operated) means that the average life-span of a human being in now over 100 years. But to live that long, they need regular “donations” – organs taken from clones, who rarely survive past the third or fourth ‘donation”. Cathy and her friends are clones, and an early death is all they have to look forward to.

Most of the film is taken up with their relationships (Cathy falls for a boy who is snatched away by her best friend; it’s not until the pair are broken by their donations while Cathy is a temporarily exempt ‘carer’ that she gets a second chance) and with exploring the unsettling but believable passivity with which they accept their fate.

Again, taken purely as a metaphor to heighten the poignancy of their plight (they don’t have long to live before they’re killed by a society that sees them as less than human), the science does its job. But this isn’t a fantasy film: it goes out of its way to create a realistic version of the rural England of the 70s and 80s, without a hovercar or lazer gun in sight.

So with that in mind, how does this life-saving medical breakthrough work? The clones aren’t clones of the people they’re donating to – the film makes clear that they’re “modelled” on the dregs of society, who’re hardly the ones at the head of the queue for life-saving medical procedures. So it’s not some kind of organ donation scheme as we know it - and how would trading individual organs prolong life in every single possible case, especially when they’re organs the donors seem to be able to do without?

More importantly, where are all the other clones? Even if each donor gives up four organs, and one new organ is all one regular person needs, you still need millions upon millions of donors. The school Cathy attends is identified as being special, the equivalent of a free-range farm, but still: you’d expect to see an awful lot of giant concrete towers in the background of the shots to store all the “battery” clones.

Okay, perhaps the organs are taken out and turned into a magic life-giving paste so you don’t really need that many clones. But if they don’t need that many clones, that’d make them kinda rare. Wouldn’t you keep them under lock and key? And the donors are able to wander around the countryside, doing pretty much what they want (though we are told later generations are kept like battery hens) – after such an investment, wouldn’t those responsible want to safeguard their investment? What if they get sick?

All of this is clearly not what the film wants you to pay attention to. But it’s a little like a magic trick: once you know how it’s done, you can’t go back to only seeing what you're supposed to. Knowing that the world in the background of this (generally effective) story doesn’t really work means the story itself loses a lot of its power. The locations become cheap sets, the emotions merely scripted words, and the heart-wrenching drama of people trapped in lives that end too soon… well, they were never really alive in the first place, were they?

Anthony Morris

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Stop Using Sex As a Weapon: Hall Pass

The concept behind Hall Pass is simple: a couple of guys are given a break from their marriages by their wives so they can cat around. Much like the other recent Hollywood relationship comedy No Strings Attached, it dangles the promise of fun outside the oh-so-narrow confines of a traditional relationship, only to yank it away: of course the guys are going to learn that being single is in fact a horrible nightmare and they’re going to rush back into the arms of their smug wives. Why are we watching this film again?

Just because we know how a journey’s going to end doesn’t men the trip's not worth taking though, but here what seems like it should be a wild and hilarious romp (well, hilarious by mainstream Hollywood sex comedy standards) largely turns out to be a dull, painful, trudging grind. Much of the blame needs to be laid at the feet of directors the Farrelly brothers, whose one classic film (There’s Something About Mary) is still getting them work despite their repeated inability to imbue their subsequent films with anything approaching that film’s charm, nuance, or comedy. Their films are, on a basic level, crude - they're filled with ugly characters and blunt situations, and they really need a nuance-free comedic set-up if they're going to work at all.

Mary worked because it had such a set-up: Mary was the girl of every man’s dreams, and so a whole bunch of weirdos and freaks fought over her. Hall Pass, on the other hand, is about that point in a marriage where things get stale and the good old days loom large. Who are we supposed to cheer for here: the guys who want to leave their wives and sleep around? The wives who let them, then get tempted themselves? How do we want this story to play out anyway? Their marriages have to be pretty flat for the guys to want to have a break, even for a short while – are we really going to cheer when they rush back in?

The film attempts to dodge this bullet the traditional way: one couple is the “real” couple, while the other is the “comedy” couple. As always, the comedy couple feels more real because they’re allowed to be pissed off and unhappy; the real couple is basically so happy it’s a bit of a puzzle why they’re getting into all this anyway.

This doesn’t really hide the fact that the guys are pretty much sleazebags, mind you; all they do up until they get the hall pass is perv on other women and make sexist comments. In a simpler film, this’d be a simple case of “be careful what you wish for”. These unlikable guys would be set free, discover being single is a nightmare, and at the end of the week run back to their wives swearing never to stray again.

[sadly, this is the state of play in Hollywood rom-coms. A film that seriously suggested that a bad marriage was one you should leave, or that some relationships aren’t worth saving, would be more than a little controversial. Even The Dilemma, which did feature a break-up, made sure to also present a successful relationship – two, if you count the bromance.]

Instead, this feels an obligation to have it both ways: the guys are actually offered hassle-free sex after less than a week on the market. You’d have to think with that kind of strike rate the temptation to stray next time the marriage is going through a dry spell would actually increase. Seriously, these guys have been on the market less than a week – more than half that time being taken up with over-eating, getting stoned, having penises waved in their faces at the gym and so on – and they still score? So this film is saying being single is good now? Well, sort of: plenty of bad things happen to them too, so the moral is… um… if you don’t want to have anything interesting happening in your life, stay married?

Of course, the real problem here is that this film is trying to be all things to all viewers. This concept would work as a film for men: two guys escape their battleaxe wives for a week, then return home having let off some steam. It’d work for women: two wives let their oafish partners off the leash, then laugh as they come crawling back. What it can’t do, no matter how hard the Farrelly’s try, is work for both audiences. The story’s being pulled in two directions; like listening to a guy trying to tell a joke he can’t get straight, eventually you stop caring.

Anthony Morris