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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

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