Good science-fiction films are hard to come by.
Most often, sci-fi fare ends up being the super-sized value meal of modern cinema. It makes sense though. After all, many sci-fi stories involve fantastic ideas, locals, and creatures, and almost all require fantastic effects to turn these science-fiction fantasies into silver-screened reality. Sci-fi films are expensive to make, and so they need to turn big profits, and spectacle sells. As a result, most sci-fi films are heavy on the sizzle and lack substance. (See, for example, Michael Bay’s The Island, which has a premise similar to that of Never Let Me Go, but it lacks almost all of the responsibility and depth.)
This saddens me, because science-fiction has long been the genre that wrestles best with the “improbable made possible,” to quote Rod Serling, and what that being “made possible” means for humanity. Science-fiction is the story-thought realm of technological, social, and political ethics. Sci-fi, for all its aliens, spaceships, and ray guns, is about the practical, immediate, tangible parts of our lives.
Never Let Me Go is a good science-fiction film. Now, there are no spaceships or laser beams in this story, but it is built on a medical breakthrough that extends life expectancy to over one hundred years. The “improbable” in this story is the eradication of disease, and it has been made possible by cloning. It is never explicitly stated in this film that cloning is what has taken place, and I really struggled with whether or not to reveal that in this review, but I don’t think knowing that fact will change your experience of the movie. In fact, I think it will enhance it.
Never Let Me Go follows three schoolmates through the course of their all too brief lives. The three friends (portrayed excellently by Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightly, and Andrew Garfield) are “donors” (of their vital organs) destined to “complete” (die because of forced donating) well before they reach middle-age. As such, their mortality is front and center and constitutes the main theme of the movie. The film encourages its audience to identify with the friends and mourn with them as they face the inevitability of death. Never Let Me Go is a lament about holding on to those we love in the face of our impending demise. It celebrates the goodness of love, grace, forgiveness, and friendship despite our temporality.
The film also invites its audience to consider the ethics of fictional medical technologies likely to become reality in the future. Cloning is happening, and it’s not entirely unlikely that cloned humans, or at least human body parts, will become an actual part of our lives. We need to wrestle on the social and individual levels with the moral implications of these technologies.
If you were dying, would you accept an organ harvested from a body grown for the purpose of saving your life? Would you seek one for a dying loved one? What does it mean to be created “in the image of God” if you are also created in the image of another person? What if we clone a person and the clone doesn’t have a soul? What if it does?
These are the kinds of questions Never Let Me Go asks. These are the kinds of questions we need to be asking as well, and not because we’ll need to know how to vote on these issues. We need to ask these questions because the answers depend on and inform who we understand God to be and how we live our lives as a result.
Never Let Me Go is good sci-fi because it uses the fantastic to deal with the reality of what it means to be human – to live and love and die – and it encourages its audience to be better humans in reality.