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.