'Never' not what you might expect

Posted: Thursday, December 02, 2010

Warning: This review contains plot spoilers.

Having never read Kazuo Ishiguro's book "Never Let Me Go," I didn't have any real expectations going into the theater. All I had to go on were the ads, which gave the impression it was a recently set coming-of-age story intertwined with newfound explorations of love.

The ads didn't lie. It was all that. What I wasn't ready for was to see this British-backdropped drama is actually a thought-provoking science fiction piece.

Everything on the screen looked normal. Same cars, clothes and people that would be found in the real world a decade or two ago in that country. Although the opening scene is a written epilogue to what drives the children's countryside school, the audience will quickly forget there is more to it than what they can see. That is, until a teacher informs the children (and us) of their purpose in life. Until she drops this bomb, you may catch interest in why the kids scan electronic bracelets when coming inside.

This school's students were never born. They were grown as clones for one purpose: to reach an age when they can donate organs to real humans. They simply have to live the best they can until that time comes, which is sometime in their 20s.

This is one of the two main questions the movie dares the audience to think about. What would you do if you learned you were not only a carbon copy, but also that your purpose was pre-destined to help others and you must die to do so at a certain time?

Oddly, or perhaps not so oddly, the three main characters, played by Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Keira Knightley, seem relatively accepting of their fate their whole lives. They most likely know they can't escape it, and once their teacher spilled the beans, they were probably coached in accepting it without question. And they do - none of them seem too upset that they must die so young, but they're not exactly happy to do it, and even pursue a long shot at getting their sentences postponed.

This leads to the other big question the story asks. Do these clones have souls? Relationships evolve between the trio plus the other kids. But can they really love, or do they just think they can love?

It's not just about love either. Do these kids really count as feeling the happiness or jealousy or guilt or loss that they experience throughout their lives? Does it matter if they came from a test tube or a womb?

The filmmakers answer none of these questions. They simply present them for us. Perhaps the "real" people running things would learn the answers eventually, but not in the short life-spans of our three protagonists.

Like any good science-fiction story, this one relies on the reactions of its characters as much as it does on the worldly aesthetics that are different than today's reality. Some films would show the complicated process of creating these "fake" people or visualize the technologies existing the cloning aspects of the world, which, again, takes place in modern times. But instead, everything is shown from the youths' viewpoints. Even after learning they're clones, they're not interested in how it was done. They want to learn how to deal with it.

Science fiction pieces like this that have little stereotypical science fiction scenes can be rare. These are the ones that transcend genres. Such fictions have been more widely used among science fiction authors than is sometimes realized. I remember reading some Isaac Asimov stories that could have taken place next door, without any robots or alien planets involved.

Where the movie falls flat is in some of the performances, particularly Knightley's. She seems to be phoning in a lot of it, and she's the one who's supposed to have some heavy tugs-of-war going on between her head and her heart. Mulligan also seems a bit too docile, but this is more reflective of her character, who seems to be all to eager to accept any downturns that are handed to her.

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