The Human Experience in Mark Romanck's Never Let Me Go
By Rachel Book
Mark Romanek’s Never Let Me Go (2010) is a dystopian film that defines what it means to be human, but also serves as a cautionary tale about the present. In this slightly altered version of reality, clones are created so that humans can harvest their organs to prolong their own lives. This film is unique because unlike other science fiction films about a similar topic, it presents itself in the form of a coming of age story which begins in the 1950’s. Unlike many similar films in this genre, Never Let Me Go does not attempt to depict a future possibility, but rather a present concern about human actions. The clones in the film represent the commonalities of the human experience, while the “real” humans are contrasted as being selfishly willing to abandon their humanity for their own good.
So what is it that makes someone (or something) human? Based on the film, the answer to this question is the ability to feel emotions. The film’s coming of age style narrative allows the audience to watch the protagonists (Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth)grow up. They have the same experience that any kid might have. They feel things that any human would feel, such as sadness, frustration, jealousy, happiness, regret, and most of all love. Throughout the film they are portrayed as having these human emotions that are associated with having a soul, yet they are deemed soulless by society. In the 1982 film Blade Runnerdirected by Ridley Scott, genetically engineered replicants are also viewed this same way. The replicants are distinguished from humans by their stunted emotions. Yet the replicants in the film do begin to exhibit strong human feelings such as sadness and empathy, particularly through their concern for one another and their fear of death, suggesting that they do have souls after all. Additionally, Solaris (Tarkovsky, 1972) depicts an alien replication of the main character’s dead wife, who shows more emotion than any of the human characters. In Never Let Me Go it is the expression of love that is an especially strong indicator of humanity. The love between Kathy and Tommy is not just there to create a touching love story, but also to communicate their humanness in the most recognizable way (Roos 50). Kathy also shows love by being a carer for other clones during their donations, and showing empathy for her friends growing up at Hailsham. If feeling emotions is an indicator of humanity, as is proposed in this film and many others, than the clones in this film most definitely have souls.
Another notion in the film that is essential to the human condition is the acceptance of death and life’s fragility. Ultimately we all die, though in this society clones have a much shorter lifespan. In most other films of this nature the characters attempt to escape from their oppressive fate. In The Island(Bay, 2005), which has a strikingly similar story, the protagonists attempt toescape from having their organs harvested. Similarly in Blade Runner, the replicants try to find a way to extend their lifespans so that they can survive and live their own lives. These films would suggest that the will to live is a natural human quality. In contrast, the clones in Never Let Me Go may seem to be less human-like because they show little resistance to their situation. Instead they quietly accept donations as the way things are. Do not let this fool you because Romanek argues that this is much more representative of the human experience. He believes that in general, people tend to accept their circumstances rather than try to change them (Miller 38). From being groomed at Hailsham to believe that this is their fate, the clones spend their adult lives trying to make the most of life. Ruth longs to make things up to Kathy and Tommy, Kathy finds meaning in her job as a carer, and the three of them attempt to make up lost time in their final days together. All of the characters want to make the most of the time they have as their mortality looms over their heads (James 1). This quiet acceptance is what makes Never Let Me Go different from other films in the dystopian genre. Though it deviates from other films’ messages about humans having a great force of will, it proposes a new concept of fatalism as a fact of life.
In contrast to the feeling and empathetic clones, the actual humans are portrayed as very inhuman. They show little to no empathy for the clones at all, and even the teachers who work closely with the students do not see them as human beings. The art gallery, which is used to decide if the students have souls, ultimately determines that they do not have souls. Perhaps the drawings did not present whatever it was that this society believes would indicate a soul. However, it is more likely that they simply turned a blind eye because there was too much to lose if the clones were to be given their own rights. When Kathy and Tommy visited one of their old teachers at Hailsham she said to them, “We were providing an answer to a question that no one was asking. You see – it is not an ethical issue – it is just about the way we are. If you ask people to return to darkness, the days of lung cancer and breast cancer and motor neuron disease... they simply say no.” Once given a taste of a world without fatal diseases, humans were willing to throw ethics out the window to continue living in this utopia.
President Bush’s Council on Bioethics determined that human cloning is morally wrong. However, Mehlman suggests that cloning itself is not inherently bad, but rather how society might treat the products of such action is what should cause concern (75). In many fictional depictions of genetic engineering, the creations often face exploitation and discrimination. In Blade Runner, replicants are used for various forms of labor, and in the 1988 novel Free Falling, genetically engineered kids are treated as property rather than people (Mehlman 25-26). Both The Island and Never Let Me Go depict clones used solely to grow organs. This exploitation represents contemporary fears about the future of science and its ability to make humanity forget itself. If being human and having a soul is to feel compassion and love, than selfishly hurting others is the antithesis to humanity. Abandoning human compassion is not a road that humanity should go down. As Mehlman implies, genetic engineering has risks, and we must be prepared for them, whatever they may be.
Though it is a science fiction film, there is nothing strikingly unusual about the setting in Never Let Me Go. In fact it does not even feel like a science fiction movie. The students at Hailsham seem to have a mostly normal life in the quaint English countryside. The only indication of this genre is the beginning title that explains that new medical advancements have led to increased lifespans, and the later revelation that the students are actually clones who were created for the harvesting of their organs. Everything else about the setting and the story is very familiar. Instead of placing the film in the future, it takes place in the not too distant past. Most dystopian films take place in a futuristic society where things are quite different from the present. The Island and Blade Runner are also good examples of this, and are consequently both set in 2019. These films depict a potential future for man-kind. However, setting the narrative of Never Let Me Go between the 1950’s and 1980’s was a strategic choice. The world in which the story takes place is both believable and familiar. This was done to show that this is not just a future possibility, but a concern of the present (Roos 46).
Human cloning is not yet possible and may not be any time soon, but the idea that humans might ignore the humanity in others when it suits them is not a problem that is alien to modern society. Society already exploits marginalized populations all around the world. And even though poor treatment of clones is not a modern problem, there are still atrocities in the world that we just accept as facts of life. About the film, director Mark Romanek said, “human cloning is an accepted fact, just as we accept - or have to put up with - nuclear energy and nuclear weapons” (Miller 38). This is just how our society operates, though the film would suggest that this is not a positive thing. Humans are not fated to turn out this way because they are already capable of this.
In Never Let Me Go, the clones have the most humanity. It is in their expression of love and other emotions, as well as their acceptance of the fragility of life that portrays a distinctly human experience. Humans in this world, however, are cold and unloving, blinded by their selfish desires. Unable to accept their own mortality, they have forgotten what it is like to truly be human. Despite this being a science fiction film, it has a very familiar and realistic feel to it. This serves to remind us that such dangers of exploiting others are not a distant concern of the future.
James, Nick. "The Art of Letting Go."Sight & Sound 21.3 (2011): 39. Academic Search Complete.Web. 14 Dec. 2014.
Mehlman, Maxwell J. Transhumanist Dreams and Dystopian Nightmares: The Promise and Peril of Genetic Engineering. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univeristy, 2012. Print.
Miller, Henry K., and Nick James."Remaining Days."Sight & Sound 21.3 (2011): 36-38. Academic Search Complete.Web. 14 Dec. 2014.
Roos, Henriette. "Not Properly Human": Literary and Cinematic Narratives About Human Harvesting." Journal of Literary Studies 24.3 (2008): 40-53. Humanities International Complete.Web. 14 Dec. 2014.