As part of a final unit on Conformity and Rebellion in Literary Science Fiction, I gave my students a choice between watching three films: 1) Children of Men, 2) The Matrix, and 3) Never Let Me Go. I’ve already given my insights into Children of Men. This time around, I want to talk about the reception of #3 both by me and by my students.
Two of my four classes watched Never Let Me Go. One class seemed to really enjoy it, while the other largely complained about how slow and plotless it was.
Michael and I had watched it a little over a year ago on DVD. We enjoyed it, and I cried at the end. I generally resent any film that makes me cry, but this one was different. It’s not emotionally manipulative. In fact, I think one reason why the one class didn’t fall for it is because it is quite subtle and unobtrusive about its themes.
This time around, I was struck by the deliberate pacing. I know that’s code for saying it’s slow. It is. It wants you to think about the emotional ramifications of what’s going on with the three characters: Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth. Initially they just seem to be students at an old school British boarding school. The characters slowly get revealed to us, and once each and their relationships get established, the film breaks the sci-fi element to us: these guys are schedule to start making “donations” once they hit adulthood, and they’ll keep donating until they “complete”.
The tension of the plot doesn’t come from their rebellion from this fate. Instead, they just accept their role in the society–to provide back up organs for the real citizens–and the drama of their lives comes from their relationships with each other, their ability to feel loved and worthy. They love and betray each other. They waste their precious time to be together dodging the deeper truths of their feelings because they fear being rejected. You would think knowing that they only have 28 years or so would cause them to doggedly pursue their goals, but not until they near their end do they actively seek a deferral from donations. But it’s too late. There are no deferrals.
Some of my students were disappointed that the trio didn’t attempt to escape their societal role, but unlike Unwind which has a similar set up, that’s not the point. This is clearly a dystopia, but it’s incredibly recognizable. These clones allow the rest of the world to live beyond 100 years. They are sacrificed for the betterment of everyone else.
So there are two key parallels to our world:
- We ignore injustices in the world because we benefit from them, just as the injustice done to the clones is ignored. Consider that much of our cheap housewares and clothing are constructed by people who are not given a living wage, worker’s rights, or safety. Here’s just one example: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/05/walmart-bangladesh-factory-fire_n_2244891.html We recognize injustices, even to ourselves, but we don’t fight them. We allow society to dictate who we are and who we will be. We don’t rebel, we just conform. And if we do rebel, it is in the most minute, meaningless of ways. Few of us ever bother to make real change to our world. (Hey, me included.)
- We too waste much of our lives under societal expectations not doggedly pursuing our loves. Kathy says at the end: “What I’m not sure about is if our lives have been so different from the lives of the people we save. We all complete. Maybe none of us really understand what we’ve lived through, or feel we’ve had enough time.” That’s the power quote of this film. That’s the theme. Nobody ever has enough time. We squander what we have, as they do.
YOLO. You’d think my students would be all over that idea, but they understand it in a different way, obviously. For them YOLO is an excuse to binge Big Bang Theory on Netflix rather than study for a test, not a deliberate pursuit of passions and loves. For them, YOLO is about prioritizing pleasure activities. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth could have benefited from more of that. But ultimately that’s not fulfilling.
So if you don’t mind a film that makes you a little weepy, give this one a shot. I think it delivers on many levels, but it never quite gives you what you expect.