When mortality hangs into frame strongly every moment, like high-beams reaching the end of the road, does life become precious — or oppresive? How do we cope with forces beyond our control, if we’ve never known control to begin with? There’s a central metaphor in Never Let Me Go, a film directed by Mark Romanek and written by Alex Garland (adapted off a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro), the young people born into life as organ donors double as mirrors to us — this is even acknowledged by our heroine in the final moments. It’s not entirely original, and in fact I’d even direct those science-fiction fans disappointed by Michael Bay’s The Island to this one, but Never Let Me Go manages to be wholly gripping despite the lack of novelty in its premise.

This is an odd thing to say; isn’t The Matrix wholly gripping despite being preempted by everything from Dark City to Rene Descartes? Yes, but The Matrix is a real American John Woo movie jam-packed with everything we want to see. Never Let Me Go has an incredibly low-key execution, dealing very little in science or set pieces, or anything visual. It’s a dead-sombre romance drama, one that from scene to scene finds characters occupying time talking or looking off into the horizon. This is both a chief issue and the spirit of the film, the thing that characterizes the fabric of the movie for better or worse. While watching it I never really had that wonderful sensation of ‘I’m actually really enjoying this,’ at a random moment like other recent watches like Mission Impossible or Contagion, but after the handful of very emotionally intense scenes, I was thorougly taken.

These great areas of the movie do however serve to make clear to me what could have been and isn’t in Never Let Me Go. Great potential here is couched in already working material, but the potential is hard to ignore. Because the movie is an adaptation, there is something lost in translation as there is universally in adaptations, something more abstract than a scene or Tom Bombadil. It might just be confidence, as a story takes form in its initial medium for a reason. In this case it was a novel, not a script. This isn’t a knock on Alex Garland, a writer I admire very much after Sunshine in particular, rather it’s criticism of the institution of adaptation with Never Let Me Go as the current case study.

Pacing is the problem. We spend so much time on narrative areas that could be trimmed or summed up, and to maintain precious film real estate (a meta-commentary on themes internal, perhaps) significant ideas or arcs are left only implied. It’s difficult for me in particular who, because of watching and being so fond of Hollywood movies, appreciates traditional storytelling in movies, because I would approach this movie by spending more time on the romance between Kathy and Tommy, which would doubtless have drawn impressive moments of sci-fi driven drama.

Of course, Tommy spends more time with Ruth and very little with Kathy because that’s the movie, their ultimate tragedy. They’re in love, but can’t be together — a classic doomed lovers story where time, circumstance, and predestination stand in for rivalling families. On paper, this is great. In execution, it works holistically, but at the high cost of merely jabbing where it could have bruised. Compliment this lack of good with an amazing amount of ‘bad,’ and we’ve got a grand total — the opening thirty minutes of the movie could have been cut down to five or ten.

For all the talk of plot and pacing, the thing to keep in mind is that Never Let Me Go is by the end successful because it’s a study of relationships. We check into these three characters every now and then, jumping ahead years at a time. We see how different they are, how the same they are, and how they’ve reacted to their current situation. The love triangle at the core of the movie is so critical because it’s able to say so much of the complications in life — and in death, too. We’re all slated to die, so what do we make of our time? In this movie, Kathy for the most part is a passive protagonist, save for one niggling thing that’s a constant throughout — her love for Tommy. Tommy has unfortunately been Ruth’s boyfriend for almost twenty years, and she had been keen on keeping him, for maybe less than admirable reasons as we discover later on.

Kathy is a victim not only of her predestination, but of Ruth, who is a product of a strange, dystopic childhood. She was jealous of her best friend, and pursued Tommy. Jealousy is dangerous to children, and this carries into teenage years and beyond with this bunch, as we tell from the diner scene — these people haven’t really grown up. They’re kids until they die.

The dramatic unfolding of this conflict is a slow burn amidst refined science-fiction ideas. There’s the walking organ factory trope we’ve seen before in everything from Repo Men to Firefly, but the underlying tragic depths that the gory predestination provides is worth digging into, and interesting territories are found. They’re also given a proper treatment, as this is science-fiction by way of Wong Kar Wai, such a subgenre that is the rarest of things. Out-there lines like ‘the art gallery wasn’t to look into your souls, but to see if you had souls,’ bear truly heartbreaking weight and impact on the already established and real characters, and it works, makes you wonder why so few have dared to put a ‘what-if’ scenario together with a serious tone.

The only other movies like this that spring to mind are Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Fountain, and Last Night. I have yet to see Code 46, but I have a feeling it’s in a similar vein. Science-fiction romance is a rare treat, so seek this one out if you feel you’ve been too happy lately. You might well up a little inside, but trust me — it’s worth it.

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