Words On Film: Never Let Me Go vs. The Island

Watch out for spoilers! I probably won't say it again, so if you haven't seen 2010's beautiful, if sometimes slightly off-step film Never Let Me Go (or the 2005 film The Island), and do not want to know how it goes, cease your ingress now. Both of these films deal with medical science gone to its next semi-logical extreme. And both deal with the complex notions and rules that define each of us as human, or to use a vile, Republican vernacular, "persons." But, really, both movies are about clones. Clones specifically created for organs, or to be the "data back-up" for some wealthy individual somewhere who no longer fears having cancer or heart disease when new bits and gibblets are OTC. The approaches between these films are very different. And most especially in their presentation of the protagonists. Because in both cases, Science (capital S) is the villain...

First, Michael Bay's The Island, starring Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson hits the action and sci-fi side of the issue as Lincoln Six Echo (McGregor) and Jordan Two Delta (Johansson) grow up in a jump-suited, ideal of Tomorrowland world bubble. They believe that the world outside has been contaminated and that life outside is impossible. But there's one place called the Island (right!?) where fresh air, water and other Earthly delights exist without contamination. The people inside their bubble compete to win a lottery that sends them there... to, for lack of a better term "heaven on Earth." But, over the course of the film we learn that the Earth is fine, just like we remember it, and Lincoln and Jordan are, in fact, clones of wealthy people who need some extra organs. Along with everyone else inside their eternal indoor prison. And, oh yeah, that Island, well, it's a myth... when you win and go there, you actually just get harvested because someone drank their first (or second) liver away. Upon discovering the truth, Lincoln and Jordan run, Logan-style, and learn about the world that they didn't really know at all. You see, these clones are naive. They know nothing of their world. They only know the tiny ordered, systems they are placed in to keep them sane, but not smart enough to revolt. Science has made people it can control... for organs... until, well, Science can't control them anymore. And in typical Bay-fashion, shit blows up all over the goddamn screen. And people, well, even as clones, we are human... we have personhood, so Lincoln and Jordan help all the clones escape... and then get to fuck on a boat (implied, not shown).

But, Never Let Me Go takes a different route. A film not directed by Bay, there are exponentially less explosions, helicopter chases and action sequences. In fact, there are none. Brooding and contemplation are the names of the game for Kathy H. (Carey Mulligan), Ruth (Keira Knightley) and Tommy D. (Andrew Garfield). Opening at a typical British boarding school, Never Let Me Go holds onto the revelation of clone-person-ship until shortly before the end of the first act. Instead, we see these characters, first through child actors, behaving as normal kids, and told merely that they are special so they must never smoke or do other detrimental things that may harm their health. When a caring teacher tells them the truth, that they will grow to be young adults and then be harvested, the children do not react. They have no concept of the reality befalling them. They are too young to know that they aren't just children. Over time, though, they come to terms with it, insofar as they acknowledge that they are clones. But rather than run, or fight, or escape, Kathy, Ruth and Tommy simply trudge forth to their destiny like chip-registered cattle. They fall in love and they want, but they also seem so resigned to their fates that they barely have to will to be "persons" at all. The greatest tragedy of Never Let Me Go comes from a last ditch effort, one that is meant to merely defer Kathy and Tommy's deaths so they can be together. It turns out to be a hoax, a fairytale concoction. Mulligan's Kathy, after losing both of her friends to "completion" (the Science term for dying because there aren't enough organs left to support the clone) and learning that she too will begin donations soon, looks out over a pastoral plain and contemplates whether her life is actually any less meaningful than someone who lived a "full life." Her final argument being that time isn't as valuable as experience because we all "complete."

For The Island, clones are charming, naive and childish, but quickly learn, only because of a failure in the system, what they are and what will happen to them. From there... it's just any action movie. It's Total Recall. For Never Let Me Go, clones are charming, naive and childish, but slowly learn about life (not because they lack the capacity, but because they seem to lack the need) in a system that NEVER fails to keep them in line. From there... it's a tragedy, but a tempered one. It's a more painful tragedy. As viewers we can't do anything to halt the system, to at least save Mulligan's Kathy. They won't run. We can't make them. So, while both films show Science gone awry. And both films imply that the wealthy will access the greatest care in the future with no regard for the human life created to meet their requirements. Only Bay's action flick offers humanity an escape. Instead, Never Let Me Go leaves us with a lamentful thought and, perhaps, the knowledge that some people (the teachers at the Clone Academy) fought to show that all these kids have souls. Where The Island becomes a thriller, Never Let Me Go turns to the dour reality of bureaucracy. It shows that if we started growing humans for harvest today, there would be opposition, but only from those who cared never to benefit. It asks a greater question about human nature. And poses the terrifying answer that each of us will almost always look out for ourselves given the chance.

Same premise. Same theme. Same Science villain. One side tells of revolution, allegorical American resistance. The other side tells of silent, disappointed whispers as life is yanked from three kids piece by piece. They ask the same questions. What is human life? What makes you a person? Who deserves to die in the name of another? But these films ask them in different ways. And the elegance and inflection is what makes the questions most resonant. Remember to look at the people you pass on the street and see them as people, persons, like you. If you actively do that, you will feel differently. That's all.

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